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CHAMPAIGN — Welcome back, track.

It’s been a while since Illinois last hosted the Big Ten Outdoor meet. Thirteen years to be exact.

But the timing couldn’t be better. For so many reasons.

At the top of the list, Illinois has beautiful new Demirjian Park to show off to the rest of the conference.

“Everything is progressing along pretty well,” Illinois coach Mike Turk said. “We’re going to present an incredible venue for competition.”

It won’t be the maiden voyage for the facility. Illinois hosted a meet earlier in the season April 23-24, and it went off swimmingly.

“We had a very large quantity of athletes. We contested all the events. We had everything up and running,” Turk said. “It gave us a great dress rehearsal.”

Turk’s biggest concern going into the week was one he admitted he could do nothing about: the weather. Yes, Demirjian is nice, but doesn’t have a roof. Maybe later.

What looked like certain rain in early-week forecasts has brightened up quite a bit. As of Thursday afternoon, the most likely chance for rain is on Sunday before competition starts.

Often, the host head coach takes a lead role during big-time meets.

“It does make it harder,” Turk said. “This year, everything has been harder with COVID. We’ve had a lot of people help out and take part of roles that maybe they didn’t anticipate. They’ve covered things quite well.”

The earlier home event allowed Turk to learn more about running meets at Demirjian.

“This weekend, it’s really going to allow me to focus on coaching and working with the team and taking care of those aspects first and foremost,” Turk said.

With its fancy updated facility, Turk hopes Illinois will host more annual meets in the future.

“We want to continue to grow as a program,” Turk said. “Having more events here is certainly part of that. The shape and scope of those events is going to be much broader than what we’ve done in the past.”

As Illinois continues to ease COVID-19 restrictions, limited seating will be allowed at the meet.

The tickets were distributed by the schools. Parents and guests will be in the stands. But there will not be a public sale the day of the events.

Turk doesn’t want to wait another 13 years to host again. There is talk the Big Ten will reshuffle the order of the championships.

“It’s rare to have a championship at home more than every 10 years,” Turk said.

A reminder: The rotation moved much faster when there were fewer schools in the conference.

About COVID-19, Illinois continues to follow its on-campus protocols and those from the Big Ten. Every athlete competing this weekend was tested before they came to the facility on Thursday. Most of the Illinois athletes have been vaccinated, according to Turk.

“I’m hearing that pretty consistently across the conference from my colleagues,” Turk said. “I think we are getting closer.”

Renewing rivalriesAll of the teams here this weekend will be competing in the Big Ten outdoor meet for the first time since 2019. The 2020 edition got canceled by the pandemic.

Iowa won the most recent men’s meet and Ohio State took the women’s title.

February’s Big Ten indoor meet was the last team-scored event for Illinois, which finished ninth in the men’s and 11th in the women’s.

Turk isn’t one of those coaches who tries to figure out what will happen ahead of the meet.

“I know that we have people that are prepared for a certain level of competition and they’re going to go in and execute the way they’ve been prepared,” Turk said. “As I look at things, it’s not so important to me who is seeded first, second, third, fourth, fifth. In this conference, there’s so much quality here that you could put a blanket over those top eight people and any one of them can win.”

Which team has the best chance to win?

In the men’s meet, Turk calls Iowa “one of the favorites. Ohio State will also be in that mix. Indiana has great potential.”

In the women’s meet, Turk likes Minnesota.

“They’ve been rock solid outdoors,” Turk said.

What thrills Turk about his current team is the number of potential scorers competing this weekend.

“That’s a real key element,” Turk said. “Looking back to two years ago, it gives a pretty fair picture of the growth and what we’ve done. I’m looking at our upperclassmen, who were all freshmen and sophomores then. The growth and improvement they’ve shown on and off the track is really quite remarkable.

“I feel really good about where we’re going to go and compete in this thing.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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