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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -
By Astrid Diaz, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Championship season is always the most exhilarating.
This weekend the Penn State cross country team travels to the University of Iowa to begin its post-season and face some familiar foes at the 2014 Big Ten Championship meet.
There's a lot of excitement surrounding the event as the Nittany Lions prepare to face a handful of ranked teams including the No. 1 Michigan State and No. 4 Michigan women and the No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 14 Michigan men.
While the teams will look to build off their previous meets and show improvement against their elite opponents, they're mostly excited about the intensity that comes with conference racing.
Two senior women consisting of Lauren Mills and Katie Rodden will travel to the Big Ten Championship for their last time but the days leading up to the race haven't lost their thrill.
"Championship time is always fun. [The] Big Ten [Championship] in general is always a good meet," said Rodden. "It's tradition that ten days out [from the event] we have themed days [at practice]. It's something silly to get us excited."
There were a few nerds and some barn animals running around the course at practice this week but the fun didn't distract the team from their goals.
"Same mindset going in," said Rodden. "Obviously [we're looking for] improvement and I know people were satisfied [last meet] but we know that we can do better. At the Big Ten meet you know all the colors and you can see exactly who you need to beat."
The freshmen women have stepped up to the plate this season showing consistency and determination. They are sure to display their best performance yet at their first conference championship outing.
"Particularly on the women's side Elizabeth [Chikotas] and Jillian [Hunsberger] have been making an impact and have been consistently in the top five this year. I'm excited to see what they can do at the Big Ten meet. It's very competitive but they're prepared," said head coach John Gondak.
"It's exciting to have them. Even though they're freshman they act older and more mature and I'm confident they are going to race well," said Rodden.
On the men's side, the pack is full of depth and experience, a change and advantage compared to previous years.
"[The] upperclassmen are leading the way and they're prepared and have a lot of experience. [They're] looking to make their mark," said Gondak.
Fifth-year senior Matt Fischer is returning to the Big Ten Championship as one of the top athletes after posting a third-place finish in 2013. He is accompanied by strong competitors like Brannon Kidder and Robby Creese.
"We as a team are no different than the other ones. We train the same and there's no need to have expectations lower than any other team," said Fischer. "We have some high goals. We're looking for one of those days where everyone has a great race and there's no better place to do that than at [the Big Ten Championship]."
The teams will rely strongly on their confidence to help them get through the weekend but they're determined to have a great time regardless of the outcomes.
"I'm fantasizing about dream outcomes for the team," said Fischer with a smile. "It's easy to be really engaged because it's a small [competitive] environment."
"It's the Big Ten meet, you're just looking forward to going out and watch everyone go head to head," said Gondak.
The Big Ten Championship will mark its 100th anniversary on Sunday morning at the Ashton Cross Country Course in Iowa City, Iowa. The women are set to begin their 6k run at 10:45 a.m. CDT and the men will compete in an 8k run at 11:45 a.m. CDT.