Growing up in Madison, Alex Brill has witnessed first-hand the dynasty-like success Wisconsin men’s cross country has achieved throughout the last 13 years. He was in third grade when the current string of 13 Big Ten titles began for the University of Wisconsin, and now, as a junior, Brill has the opportunity to contribute to and be part of that success himself.
Brill is no stranger to winning. At Madison’s LaFollette High School he helped win back-to-back state championships in cross-country as a sophomore and junior, and he then earned the title of 3200-meter state champion in track as a senior. Those team and individual successes are what paved Brill’s route to Wisconsin and he now has the opportunity to showcase the talent that helped land him a spot on the team.
According to head coach Mick Byrne, that talent is due in large part to his size and strength.
“He’s about 6-foot-20,” Byrne joked. “He’s huge. He’s a big, strong kid. A guy like that should be able to get out and run fast and hard in cross country.”
Brill has not wasted any time in doing so this year, as he took home first place honors in Wisconsin’s first meet of the year, the Badger Opener. Following his stellar performance, Brill was named Big Ten Athlete of the Week on Sept. 11 and he was also featured in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.”
Although he was excited about the individual accolades, Brill really hopes to add to the tradition of Wisconsin cross-country.
“It’s one thing running for Wisconsin, but it is another one contributing to the success of Wisconsin cross-country,” Brill said. “It’s an accomplishment in itself just because our team is one of the best in the nation.”
To be a major contributor to the team this fall, Brill will have to transfer the success he experienced on the track during the spring to the more rugged landscape of the cross-country course. The two sports, although both distance running, are vastly different from one another in both the physical and mental approaches. Still, any experience running competitively is highly-valued, regardless if it is in the same sport or not. So the individual strides Brill made as a runner during the spring, including setting a personal best in the steeplechase, could prove very important to his ability to succeed in cross-country.
At least Byrne is hoping that is the case.
“You would expect a good athlete would take that confidence … that momentum into the cross-country season, and fingers crossed that’s what he’s going to do,” Byrne said.
Intra-squad competition should also play a vital role in Brill’s quest to be part of the scoring picture for UW. With Mohammed Ahmed, Maverick Darling and Reed Connor presumably taking up the first three scoring positions, the competition for the two remaining scoring spots is heating up with five or six runners vying for them. Brill is right in the thick of that battle and even though his personal goal is one of those two spots, he is more focused on the success of the team as a whole.
“Right now I’m looking to be that fourth, fifth runner and really close that gap from that third guy,” Brill said. “If we have a good fourth, fifth guy we can win nationals again.”
What this season will ultimately hinge on for Brill is his performance in the two upcoming meets before championship season begins. Brill has not raced in three weeks since his victory at the Badger Opener, and so the Sean Earl Lakefront Invitational Saturday in Chicago will go a long way in telling Byrne how much progression Brill has made in training. Brill’s training has been geared toward the middle of races, where mentality and mental toughness are crucial, and that will be Brill’s biggest test for Saturday and the rest of the season. According to Maverick Darling, all signs point to success if he can pass that test.
“He’s very talented, even if he probably won’t admit to that,” Darling said. “He’s got really good speed. I think the thing we will see if he can do this year is get through that pain tolerance in the middle of races. If he can do that, he’s going to be one of those guys we’re looking at later on in Louisville [at the national championship] and at the Big Ten meet.”
Both Byrne and Brill have their eye on the Wisconsin adidas Invitational Oct. 11 as the meet that will answer their questions about the rest of the season. For Brill, it is the chance to show he can be successful against top tier competition and help bring success for the team. As for Byrne, the Wisconsin adidas Invitational will tell him, “how much [Brill] is ready, and how much he wants to be in the big time.”