April 30, 2009
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Illinois men's and women's track and field teams will join together this weekend, hosting the Illinois Invitational on Saturday, May 2 at the UI Track Stadium. The meet marks a number of occasions for both teams: the Fighting Illini's lone chance of the outdoor season to compete in front of their home crowd, the final competition prior to the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and a farewell for the Orange and Blue seniors. A handful of elite professional athletes are also scheduled to compete, highlighted by UI great and three-time national champion Perdita Felicien and Bershawn Jackson, the bronze medalist in the 400m hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Field events at the Illinois Invitational begin Saturday at noon with the women's hammer throw, while the running events kick off at 5 p.m. with the 3,000m steeplechase. The 5,000m is the last event of the evening, scheduled to begin at 8:25 p.m. Admission to the meet is free for the public.
"We are always excited to perform in front of a home crowd," Illini men's head coach Wayne Angel said. "It's very special to have the hometown fans cheering for you. I feel confident that the group of athletes competing will give them something to talk about this weekend."
Teams scheduled to be in action along with the Illini include Iowa, Western Illinois, Lincoln (MO) and Rend Lake, as well as a number of athletes competing unattached.
"We're still trying to get some things done as far as NCAA regional qualifiers," Illinois women's head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said. "The fact that this is a smaller meet is good for us right now after the high-intensity competition we have faced in five consecutive weeks. The level of competition will still be pretty high with the athletes who are entered, so we are looking for some top performances."
Two Olympians in Felicien and Jackson highlight the unattached field, both of whom are coached by former Illinois women's coach Gary Winckler. Felicien is making her way back to international competition from a foot injury that kept her from representing Canada in the 2008 Olympics and will run her signature event on Saturday, the 100m hurdles. Jackson is slotted to compete in both the 200m and 400m, going head-to-head with Illini All-American Gakologelwang Masheto in the 400m. Former Illini Gia Lewis-Smallwood, who was a Big Ten champion and All-American for the Orange and Blue in 2001, will compete in the discus. Lewis-Smallwood was an Olympic Trials participant in the discus, and is currently coached by Illinois men's assistant coach Mike Turk.
A lot of exciting races should take place on Saturday, as both Illinois teams are competing the majority of their top athletes. Masheto will run the 400m for the last time on his home track, an event where he is a three-time Big Ten champion. The Botswana native has only ran his signature event twice so far this season, but he is still ranked 13th in the country. Masheto will also run the 200m and anchor the Illini 4x400m relay. Illini fans will also get a chance to see freshman Andrew Riley, who is fresh off of breaking the school record in the 110m hurdles and earning Big Ten Track Athlete of the Week accolades. Other Orange and Blue athletes to watch include Casey Fonnesbeck (shout put), Hendrik Maartens (400m hurdles), Gary Miller (800m), Jacob Nachel (1,500m) and Cody Wisslead (400m hurdles).
On the women's side, two-time All-American Aja Evans will throw the shot put beginning at 1:30 p.m. She has already won three event titles this outdoor season and is currently ranked ninth in the country in the shot put with a season-best mark of 53-11. Senior Deserea Brown is also ranked among the best in the country in an event, with the 10th-fastest 400m hurdles time in the NCAA (58.39). Brown will run both the 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles on Saturday. More Illini to look for top performances from include Melissa Bates (200m), Latoya Griffith (400m hurdles), Jessica Penney (long jump), Tamika Robinson (100m hurdles) and Omoye Ugiagbe (200m, 400m).
Both Illini track and field teams will have next weekend off in preparation for the Big Ten Outdoor Championships hosted by Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio from May 15-17.