SJR Column: Cross Country, August 2015
August is upon us and students will soon be arriving for the 45th Fall semester at the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois. One particular group of students is especially excited about the coming year. That group consists of the student-athletes who will be the founding members of the UIS cross country running program.
Following a yearlong analysis of sports opportunities led by Director of Athletics Kim Pate and with the unanimous recommendation of our Intercollegiate Athletics Committee, we announced the addition of cross country (and distance track) last December. According to a study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, cross country ranks in the top five sports in the U.S. for high school participation by both girls and boys. Interest locally and across Illinois is high, which means significant recruitment opportunities within the central Illinois region.
The academic profile of cross country student-athletes is strong – making the sport a natural fit for the UIS campus and an addition that contributes to our campus-wide enrollment growth priority.
Though the sport is new to UIS, it is most certainly not new to Mike De Witt, who became UIS’s first cross country coach in March. Mike is a world-class athlete himself who got his start playing baseball and running in his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. An All American at UW Parkside, Mike was later a member of the U.S. Army Track Team (during military service) and became a race-walker – competing as a member of Team USA seven times, including at the 1989 World Cup when he was 38 years old. De Witt was named the GLVC Coach of the year seven times during his 29-year coaching career at Parkside and is a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame.
Since his arrival on campus, Mike has been busy sending introductory letters to coaches at every high school within a 45-minute drive of Springfield and attending high school track meets – networking with high school coaches. Thanks to his reputation and enthusiasm, the response has been both welcoming and exciting.
Mike has also discovered that interest among current students was “way more” than he expected. After a six-week tryout this spring, several current UIS students made the team and have been doing summer workouts and looking forward to the inaugural season. “Rounding up a group to get started here in the fall has been my number one priority,” he tells me.
“UIS is a great niche for runners from across the entire state,” he says, “because of the affordability and the location.”
A glance at the 2015 UIS cross country team roster has a decidedly local flavor! Krissy Finley and Eli Cook, for example, ran cross country at Rochester High School under coach Bill Owens. Eli, who spent his freshman year at Millikin, tells me that he’s excited to be back in his hometown. “Being on the new UIS team with my long-time friend and rival, Ethan Bluhm, makes the switch that much easier,” he says. Ethan is a recent Sacred Heart Griffin graduate whose dad is the cross country coach there.
Krissy became a cross country all-state runner at Rochester and her high school team finished second at the state meet her senior year.
“I like that cross country is not only an individual sport, but also a team sport,” she says. “It’s exciting to be a part of a new sport at a college in the city I grew up in and I hope to be part of the start of a dynasty.”
Not everyone on the team will be going home on the weekends though. Thomas Ness is a freshman from Las Vegas, Nevada who’ll be traveling about 1,600 miles to become a Prairie Star. “I tend to have a sense of adventure,” he tells me, “and I am beyond excited to have received this opportunity to compete for UIS. ”
The new cross country team will be practicing at Lake Park near the Henson Robinson Zoo, as well as at Lincoln Memorial Garden, Southwind Park and on local bike trails. Megan Styles, Assistant Professor of Environment Studies at UIS, is the faculty partner for the new program and has even done a few workouts with the team. “I look forward,” she says, “to being inspired by the student-athletes who share my love of running, personal growth, and teamwork.”
Coach De Witt is working with UIS grounds keeping staff to create a new cross country course on the UIS campus. “I’m looking forward to the community having a chance to come out and see local kids run at UIS,” he says. We’ll have that chance when the first-ever UIS Cross Country Invitational Meet is held on campus September 11th – with the women’s race starting at 5:30 p.m. and the men’s start at 6:00 p.m.
What is Coach De Witt’s prediction for this new team? “Our students are going to know what it’s like to see the front of the race.”