Senior Aja Evans is one of two All-Americans back for the Illini in 2010.
Jan. 10, 2010
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In her second year at the helm of the Illinois women's track and field program, head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey expects to continue the program's rise into national prominence and improve upon last season's success. Illinois is coming off the best finish in school history at the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships and a solid 12th-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, the best showing since 2002, but Buford-Bailey, the 2009 USTFCCCA Head Coach of the Year for the Midwest Region, simply sees last year as a starting point.
"Last year just gave our team a baseline to improve upon," Buford-Bailey said. "We want to go into this year with the same thing in mind and do even better in both indoor and outdoor. We always look for strong performances across the board and to get more athletes qualified for the NCAA Championships to give us a better opportunity to score points at that level."
The Fighting Illini are poised to make their mark on the national scene again with the majority of last year's talent returning. A national champion, two All-Americans and three Big Ten champions are back along with a number of Big Ten scorers and national qualifiers. Despite losing All-Americans Deserea Brown and Omoye Ugiagbe, a four-year letterwinner, an athletic group of freshmen should fill some of the gaps in the sprints and hurdles and bolster the lineup in a number of events.
"We have replaced some of the people lost with an equal level of ability, so we can be just as good this year and hope to be better," Buford-Bailey said. "We have brought in a talented group of young people that can compete in a variety of events and really add to our lineup."
The top returners are led by senior two-time national champion Angela Bizzarri (5,000m and cross country), senior three-time All-American Aja Evans (shot put) and junior Big Ten champion Melissa Bates (400m). These upperclassmen will provide veteran leadership for the talented newcomers, which provide a solid foundation for a strong 2010 season.
Illinois has several athletes who figure to be major factors for the sprinting corps, including Bates, Ryisha Boyd and Tamika Robinson. Bates won the 2009 Big Ten outdoor title in the 400m, was a national qualifier in the event and anchored the 4x400m relay that set the school record at the Alex Wilson Invitational during the indoor season. Boyd displayed her skills on the national stage by placing fifth in the USA Junior Championships in the 400m, garnered All-Big Ten honors for both the indoor and outdoor seasons and ran the third leg for the school-record relay. Robinson anchored the 4x100m relay that competed at the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships and placed third at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, while also scoring for the Illini at Big Tens with a fourth-place finish in the 60m.
"Melissa will be a major factor and is back as a returning Big Ten champion," Buford-Bailey said. "Ryisha will make her mark in the 400m, while Tamika will have an impact in the all-around sprints and hurdles. I look for those three experienced sprinters to help lead the newcomers."
Freshmen Marissa Golliday and Kayla Smith will be called upon to make an immediate impact in their first season. Golliday was the 2009 Illinois state champion in the 400m, where she set the state meet record, while Smith is a five-time Oregon state champion in the 100m, 200m and long jump. Junior Cheria Morgan, who led off the 4x100m relay that competed at the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships, and sophomore Clarrisa Toomer, a transfer from the University of Texas-Arlington, will also play key roles in the short sprints.
"Marissa has shown in fall training that she is very tough and gutsy," Buford-Bailey said. "She runs with our best sprinters stride for stride in practice so we foresee her as a major factor in the conference. Kayla is an all-around sprinter, which is an area of emphasis that we need to improve upon from last year, so she will fill some of those gaps along with Cheria and Clarrisa."
Sophomore Ashley Kelly ran mainly relays last year, but will also step up and run the 200m and 400m this season. Kelly led off the 4x400m relay that qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships last year, and Buford-Bailey has high expectations for the relays again this year. The lineup of Ugiagbe, Brown, Boyd and Bates that set the 4x400m indoor school record last season lost two members, but the Orange and Blue should still have a national-caliber group with the incoming talent. The Illini also placed second in the 4x400m at both the Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships, and will contend for a Big Ten title this year.
"Our 4x400m relay team did really well last year, breaking the school record and qualifying for nationals for the indoor and outdoor season," Buford-Bailey said. "We look to do even better this year with the talent we have coming in and experience gained from last year. We didn't have as successful a year in the 4x100m, so that is an event that we will focus a little bit more on this year."
Illinois is traditionally one of the best hurdling schools in the Big Ten under the direction of Buford-Bailey, who took home an Olympic bronze medal in the 400m hurdles. The Illini have boasted back-to-back Big Ten champions in the 400m hurdles in Brown and former Illini Briana Cunningham. With both of them gone, sophomore Latoya Griffith, who placed third at Big Tens and was a national qualifier, will be the top returning hurdler. Robinson, a Big Ten scorer during the indoor season, is the Illini's best short hurdler and looks to make major strides in the 60m and 100m hurdles.
"We expect Latoya and Tamika to improve on their finishes from last season and make an impact at the conference level," Buford-Bailey said.
Along with Griffith and Robinson, freshman Kawanna Brooks also looks to make an immediate impact in just her first season. Brooks took third in the 100m hurdles at the 2009 Illinois state meet and will also contribute in the long jump and triple jump. Senior Alecia Beckford-Stewart is also back along with sophomore Jayla McArthur, who will run the 400m hurdles.
Boyd and Griffith are expected to step up in the 600m during the indoor season, while every member of the distance medley relay that scored at Big Tens is back in seniors Paris Streeter and Ashley Thompson and juniors Chantelle Groenewoud and Shannon Phelan. Junior Jamie Brusa will also add depth to the middle distance crew.
"Shannon has run well in the past, so we hope to keep her healthy for her to be successful in her final year on the track," distance coach Jeremy Rasmussen said. "Jamie and Ashley made great improvements during the cross country season, so we look for that to carry over to the track season as well."
Rasmussen has guided the Illini distance squad to much success in recent years, transferring impressive cross country seasons to strong performances on the track. His cross country teams have consistently ranked in the top 15 nationally, and he expects that to carry over to the track with a core group of returning runners.
Heading into her final year of eligibility on the track, senior Angela Bizzarri is already the most decorated Illini distance runner in school history. The Mason, Ohio native won two national titles in less than six months, tallying the 5,000m crown in June and becoming Illinois' first-ever cross country national champion in November. At the end of the 2009 track season, she turned in a career-best performance in her signature event at the USA Championships, placing third in the 5,000m with a school-record time of 15:33.02, and just missed qualifying for the IAAF World Championships. The eight-time All-American holds five school records and will try to reset her own marks in 2010 while trying to defend her national title in the 5,000m. She will also run the 1,500m outdoor and 3,000m indoor, where she was the Big Ten runner-up in each a year ago.
"Angela is always trying to improve," Rasmussen said." Even after winning the national title last year, she still wants to drop her time and continue to get better. We will re-evaluate her training and how we do things to set her up to be very successful at NCAAs once again."
Illinois also brings back Groenewoud, sophomore Kristin Sutherland, and senior Elizabeth Boyle, who each earned All-Big Ten and All-Region honors during the cross country season. Groenewoud qualified for the national meet in the 3,000m steeplechase in each of her first two years and just missed reaching the finals last year, where she became the second-fastest steeplechase performer in school history with a personal-best time of 10:17.37. She also scored in the mile and steeplechase in the respective conference meets. In her first year on the track, Sutherland was a regional qualifier in the 5,000m and a Big Ten scorer in the same event during indoors. Boyle narrowly missed the regional standard last year at the Mt. SAC Relays and posted several solid performances throughout the cross country season.
"Kristin is learning how to be her best at the end of the year, so we look forward to her competing in the 5,000m, 3,000m and possibly even the 10,000m, which all suit her strengths well," Rasmussen said. "Chantelle has done a great job of continuing to improve her time during her first two years, and she has always run well when it counts, so we expect to see that again this year.
"Elizabeth just missed qualifying for a regional spot last season, so our first goal is to get her to the national qualifying round. We also hope to build off of her successful cross country finish to try and get her to the national meet."
After redshirting all of the 2008-09 season, sophomore Danelle Woods, the 2007 Big Ten Freshman of the Year in cross country, is back in the mix, and Rasmussen believes she will be a great addition to the team. He expects to see signs of her 2008 form where she was the NCAA Mideast Regional champion in the 3,000m steeplechase and part of the All-American distance medley relay. Along with Woods, freshman Meghan Murphy should bolster the lineup in the distance events.
Field events coach Mike Erb is confident heading into the 2010 season after a great fall of training. He believes all of the athletes have continued to improve and are ready to build on the accomplishments achieved last season.
Sophomore Alexandria Smith was Illinois' top triple jumper last season, qualifying for regionals with a leap of 40-5 and scoring at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships with a seventh-place finish. She also displayed her skills nationally when she competed in the USA Junior Championships. Junior Kelly Washington competed at both conference meets in the triple jump and hopes to improve on her finishes this season. Freshman Kawanna Brooks was the runner-up at the 2009 Illinois state meet in the long and triple jumps, and will be a strong contributor for the Illini jumpers.
"Alexandria had a great freshman year and expects to place even higher at the Big Ten meet this year," Erb said. "Kelly is only in her second year doing the triple jump. She just got her feet wet last year, and we're looking for her to contribute at the Big Ten level. Kawanna has tremendous speed and strength and also will contribute in the long and triple jumps this year."
Sophomore Jayla McArthur also showed throughout fall workouts that she will be a force in the long jump.
"Jayla had an awesome fall training season, so we expect her to play a key role in the long jump, as she shows a lot of promise in that area," Buford-Bailey said.
Sophomore Kendall McCaugherty struggled with injuries as a freshman, but looks to regain her form that made her a three-time West Virginia state champion in the high jump. She turned in Illinois' top high jump performance last season, and hopes to be a contender at the conference meet.
"Kendall has been healthy and getting stronger with each day," Erb said. "Her goals include performing well at the Big Ten meet and beyond."
Senior Aja Evans proved she is one of the nation's top shot putters last season, earning her third All-America honor and first in the outdoor season when she placed fifth at the NCAA Championships. The Chicago, Ill., native garnered All-America accolades for the second straight year at the NCAA Indoor Championships by placing fifth and resetting her own school record in the event with a throw of 55-0 ¾. She also won the shot put title at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships for the second year in a row along with four other shot put titles in meets during 2009. Evans looks to cap off an excellent career with more All-America honors and a Big Ten title in 2010.
"Aja is one of the best returning shot putters in the country," Erb said. "We will work to improve upon her fifth-place showings in both indoor and outdoor last year."
Illinois has a duo of young pole vaulters remaining on the roster with the graduation of Jackie Ziegler. Freshman Maria Scheet, who took sixth at the 2009 Illinois state meet, boasts a personal best of 11-9, which is her high school's record. Junior Kaitlin Vicari will also work with pole vault coach Bryan Carrel throughout the year to gain experience in the event.
"Maria and Kaitlin have shown tremendous work ethic and improved greatly this fall," Erb said. "We hope to see them make an impact at the Big Ten level."
Senior Alecia Beckford-Stewart has had a successful collegiate career and looks for it to continue in her final year on the track. Last season, she took seventh in the long jump at the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships, was fourth in the heptathlon at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and competed in the long jump at the Canadian Championships over the summer. She also was fourth in the pentathlon at the Big Ten Indoor Championships, scoring a personal-best 3,840 points and hitting the NCAA provisional qualifying standard.
"Alecia is very focused for her last collegiate season," Erb said. "She was just shy of getting to the NCAA meet in 2009, and has goals of making the national meet this year. She will also help us in the heptathlon and long jump at the Big Ten meet."