Nov. 13, 2006
First-place finishes are always the ultimate goal for cross country runners.
For Illinois senior Cassie Hunt, finishing first has meant more than just her spot in a race, but also her place in Illinois history.
In her four years with the Illini, Hunt has rewritten school history from the bottom up, pulling her team from a seventh-place finish at the Big Ten Championships her freshman year to as high as a second-place spot in her junior season.
Prior to Hunt's career at Illinois, the Illini had never had a Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Athlete of the Year or Big Ten Champion. Hunt began to turn that around her freshman season when her 12th-place overall finish of 21:36.9 at the Big Ten Championships earned her Freshman of the Year honors. The distinction made her the first Illinois runner, male or female, to win a conference postseason honor since the process began in 1987.
That season, Hunt also became the first Illinois freshman in history to qualify for the NCAA Championships and did not disappoint in the meet, finishing the national course in a time of 22:03.0 to place ahead of numerous Big Ten upperclassmen.
As Hunt's career developed, her accolades continued to pile on. In her sophomore year, Hunt became just the fourth Illinois runner to be named to the All-Big Ten first team when she finished the conference meet in 21:06 - the fourth fastest time in school history.
Later that season, Hunt became the first Illinois woman to be named Midwest Regional Runner of the Year when she set a school and course record with a 6,000-meter time of 20:21 as she helped her squad to its first-ever NCAA Championships appearance.
Hunt took the next step up in her junior season when she became the first woman in program history to earn the Big Ten individual title, finishing the race at 21:00.54 which earned her the conference's Athlete of the Year and Athlete of the Championships honors.
At the NCAA Championships, Hunt was named an All-American after placing 11th and shattering her own Illinois record with a time of 20:05 to help the Illini finish fifth in the nation, the best showing in school history.
But for Hunt, all the first-place finishes rank only second when she considers what it has meant to have been part of a team on the rise.
"It's great any time you can be a part of something that's just improved," Hunt said. "And, being with these girls, you just establish relationships and bonds that are going to last for a really long time, and that's the most important thing to me - to be around the girls."
Relationships aren't just Hunt's favorite part of collegiate running, but also why she started in the first place.
The Roachdale, Ind., native began running track in the eighth grade after the encouragement of a friend, and then in high school, left volleyball for cross country to stay under the guidance of her high school track coach.
"My sophomore year in high school I stopped playing volleyball because I didn't enjoy it much," Hunt said. "But, the cross country coach was my track coach through high school and she got me interested and really made me like it a lot."
And when it came time for Hunt to select a college, it was once again a relationship with a coach that proved to be her biggest influence.
"I really connected with Coach Harvey [Illinois head women's cross country coach Karen Harvey]," Hunt said. "She was the first coach to come to my house and take a real interest in me. And, it's a great school and it wasn't that far from home. It was just a great fit overall."
Though Hunt admits that she knew "absolutely nothing" about Illinois cross country when she was recruited, she is happy that her performances have given her coach something on which to continue building the program.
"I'm just glad that I've been able to improve under Coach Harvey," Hunt said. "I think it helps a lot with recruiting and getting other athletes interested in coming and helping out our program. For me, personally, it's just special to win some of those big races like that and to just compete well and improve."
Not only has Hunt succeeded in winning races on the course, but away from it, as she was named an Academic All-Big Ten honoree in the two years she has been eligible.
"That means a lot, too," Hunt said of her academic achievements. "It should mean just as much as being All-Big Ten in a race. I think it says a lot for your school when you do have athletes who can make those Big Ten teams - it says a lot about a program."
Hunt once again points to her coach in noting how she was able to find success in the classroom.
"She always emphasizes academics as well as athletics," Hunt said. "That's one of the key things that, as a coach, she should be concerned with, and she is. She knows what she's doing and there's trust that goes on between an athlete and a coach and you just develop relationships and friendships, and that's something I have with her. She's had a huge influence on me in these past few years, and it's been great."
Over the course of her career, Hunt has internalized several life lessons that she has received both from her coach and from the experiences of enduring the demanding schedule of a student-athlete.
"It's tough, what we do, and it builds a lot character," Hunt said. "That's something you can apply to anything you do. Nothing in life ever comes easily, so I think that's something we're being prepared for - running and training hard and learning to stick with it and make it through obstacles that we come across every day."
It is because of this mentality and solid work ethic that Hunt feels the Big Ten Conference has been so successful at cross country over the years.
"Everyone is pretty talented, but there is another element that goes into it," Hunt said. "A lot of the girls that go to the Big Ten schools and compete sort of have that same mentality - a good old Midwestern work ethic. I think that kind of applies to everybody, for the majority. Most of the teams are made up of girls around the area who just want to go in there and work really hard and improve."
Hunt has taken these lessons to heart, working hard to improve herself over the last four seasons and is taking her team with her. From her freshman to junior year, Hunt decreased her time at NCAAs by almost a full two minutes and led her team to national appearances in her sophomore through senior years with a top-five finish in 2005.
Hunt has stumbled a bit in her senior season, but remains optimistic that she has what it takes to kick it into high gear now that the NCAA Championships are on the horizon.
"This season has been sort of a struggle for me," Hunt said. "I'm not running as well as I know I'm capable. My goal is to get back where I was - at full strength - and compete well and keep on competing until I graduate."
But Hunt has gained strength as the season has progressed, helping the Illini to yet another first last weekend in the team's first-ever Midwest Regional Championship. Hunt was Illinois' fourth finisher, placing 12th overall in a time of 21:19.17.
And the recruiting advantages Hunt spoke of are already beginning to show as it was a freshman, Angela Bizzarri, who led Illinois at regionals, placing second overall at 20:47.32.
With the regional win, Hunt and the rest of the Illini will make their third-straight appearance at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 20, where in her last race as a cross country runner, Hunt hopes to lead her team to one final first.