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DEKALB, Ill. - The Northern Illinois cross country team kicks off their 2012 season Saturday when they head to Palos Heights, Ill., for the UIC Opener.
The meet begins at 10 a.m. on the two-mile Horse Lake Trail, located in the Swallow Cliff Natural Area. NIU is set to compete alongside Horizon League members UIC, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay, along with local foes Chicago State and St. Xavier.
"With any first meet of the year, the most important thing that you want is to compete and compete well," said NIU head coach Greg Hipp. "Certainly, we want to have a good outcome, hopefully win the meet and run fast, but the biggest thing this time of year is to compete and show that we can run tough. If we can do that, once we are ready to go later on in the year, their bodies are going to know what to do. We've got to go out there and be aggressive in the first meet."
Meanwhile, NIU will also feature five highly-touted newcomers on this year's roster, led by NIU's 5000 and 10,000 meter track record holder Juliane Totzke. Alongside the German sophomore are freshmen Ali Olson, Leah Raffety, Hannah Savage and Taylor Vinhal. Each of them will likely have a major impact on the team this season, according to Hipp.
"They've come in really fit and they are competing well," Hipp said. "I've really never seen a group of freshmen this confident before in all the years I've coached. I'm really impressed at how they have come in, not just in the way they are doing work, but in the mentality they have. I think they are going to make a quick transition, but they're certainly making the rest of the team step up, as well."
Northern is looking to improve on last season's season-opening performance, when they finished seventh in the 2011 UIC Opener. However, NIU did defeat both UIC and UW-Green Bay in subsequent meets later on in the 2011 season and has seen major improvements during preseason practice.
"It's a completely different kind of group in almost every aspect," Hipp said. "The kind of culture and mentality they brought into this year is completely different and that's showing in their workouts. We've had seven to eight girls in every single workout run faster than our number one girl did last year."
The team was picked to finish eighth in the Mid-American Conference's preseason poll, finishing ahead of Buffalo, Kent State, Ball State and Bowling Green.