Sophomore Ashley Spencer will look to defend her NCAA title as she and the Fighting Illini have big goals set for 2013.
Jan. 10, 2013
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After having one of the most successful years in program history last year, fifth-year head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey is looking forward to what this team has to bring to the table. Following a year where Illinois athletes collected one NCAA individual title, seven total All-America distinctions, 21 All-Big Ten titles, set nine school records and scored significant points at both the Big Ten and NCAA Championships, the Orange and Blue look to focus on bigger goals for the 2013 season. The squad was most recently ranked in the USTFCCCA preseason top-25 poll, sitting at No. 22 in the country.
"We want to focus more on winning as a team and brining home trophies," Buford-Bailey said. "Last year our focus was improving from what our successes were from the years past as we accomplished that. We moved up in scoring with our indoor and outdoor Big Ten finishes but this year we are focusing on the top spot. We are also focused on qualifying relays both indoors and outdoors to the NCAA Championships. Indoors we have a great chance of sending the Distance Medley and the 4x400 while outdoors we are focused on qualifying both 4x100 and 4x400m teams."
At the forefront of the sprint squad is NCAA and World Junior Champion Ashley Spencer. The sophomore is coming off an incredible year after being a two-time IAAF World Junior Champion, winning a national title in the 400m, six Big Ten titles and breaking six school records. The 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will be on a quest to defend her NCAA title, an event she was undefeated in during the 2012 season.
"It's not a secret anymore that Ashley is a very special athlete," Buford-Bailey said. "She is one of the most versatile sprinters in the country with a range of 100-400m who can also hurdle. She is such a tough and dedicated competitor that I definitely expect her to have another stellar season."
Coach Buford-Bailey is most excited for newcomer Morolake Akinosun to contribute in the shorter sprints. Akinosun, the sister of Moriyike, was the 2012 Illinois state champion in the 100m and holds the state record in the event. She was also the 2011 AAU Junior Olympic 100m and 200m champion.
"We have not had a lot of success on the Big Ten and national levels in the shorter sprint events but I expect her to come in right away and be a big contributor," Buford-Bailey said. "Her high school accomplishments speak for itself but she has shown me this fall that she is mature and focused on being the best short sprinter in Illini history. From what I've seen so far, I believe she is definitely capable of reaching those goals."
The squad will also look for contribution from sophomore Asia Thomas who led off the 4x400 relay that broke the indoor school record last year. Also, newcomers Mobolaji Adeokun and Lauren Hollingsworth should play important roles in the sprints and hurdles areas.
Bailey will look to junior's Jesica Ejesieme and Breeana Coleman to lead the hurdles group. Both girls qualified for the 2012 NCAA Championships with Ejesieme earning second-team All-American accolades in the 400m hurdles and Coleman running the 60m and 100m hurdles at the National meet. The duo also scored significant points on the Big Ten level, both finishing runner-up during the outdoor conference championships. Coach Buford-Bailey knows that both hurdlers have bigger goals to achieve this season.
"Jesica and Breeana are expected to step up for us in the hurdles," Buford-Bailey said. "They are both looking forward to scoring in the NCAA final this season. Their goals are big and they've both worked really hard this fall."
Having depth in the middle distance squad is one thing coach Buford-Bailey is looking forward to this season. The Illini return two conference point scorers in Samantha Murphy and Amanda Duvendack while the team also returns sophomore Chloe Schmidt who holds the ninth-fastest 800m time in school history.
"Our biggest surprise this season I think will come from Samantha," Buford-Bailey said. "She is so focused on her training and perfecting her race strategy for the 2013 season."
The Orange and Blue will also get significant contribution from newcomer Lindsey Rakosnik and transfer Ahlivia Spencer, Ashley's sister. Rakosnik was the 2011 United States Track and Field National Junior Olympic 1,500m champion as well as state champion in the 800m. Spencer comes to Illinois from Louisville where she holds four school records and was a three-time Big East champion.
"We have a deep group of middle distance runners coming back along with one of the best newcomers from the State of Illinois," Buford-Bailey said. "This is a strong area for us and what makes it even stronger is the presence of Lindsey and Ahlivia. Rakosnik can move up to the 1,500m and Spencer can move down to the 400 and run 4x400 relay legs so this all plays well into our team's depth."
The Illini are looking to capitalize on the success they had in the long distances last year. Senior's Courtney Yaeger and Madeline Aufmann will be two leaders to pace the Orange and Blue as Yaeger set the 10,000m school record last year and Aufmann scored points in the 3,000m steeplechase at the conference meet. Also returning is junior Katie Porada, who qualified for the NCAA West Preliminary round in the 1,500m and scored points at the conference meet in the event. The team will also get contributions from Stephanie Morgan who returns from a redshirt year as well as the redshirt-freshman Alyssa Schneider, who received All-Region honors in cross country during the fall. The long distance squad looks to freshman Amanda Fox to have a great rookie season as well.
"Katie and Courtney held this area pretty strong for us last season but fortunately they should get help from Stephanie who returns from a redshirt season and the emergence of Alyssa," Buford-Bailey said. "Alyssa had an awesome cross country season so it will be exciting to see what she does on the track in 2013. Madeline scored well for us last year in the steeplechase and is really focused on making her last season as an Illini her best. Newcomer and Illinois state cross country champion Amanda will also team up with Yaeger and Schneider in the longer events."
In his fifth season as the assistant coach, Mike Erb's field events will be led with a strong pole vaulting group for the second consecutive year. Junior Stephanie Richartz is coming off an incredible year, winning a Big Ten title and setting the indoor and outdoor school records. Teammate Elizabeth Eitzen looks to be a contributing factor in the pole vault, as she scored points in the outdoor conference meet in back-to-back years. Freshman Jennifer DeBellis will look to make an immediate impact, as she was a two-time state pole vault champion in Vancouver, Wash.
"Richartz has had the most success in the field events area but Elizabeth has continued to improve and score on the Big Ten level in the event," Buford-Bailey said. "Newcomer Jennifer has already learned a lot about hard work during training with Eitzen and Richartz. She should have a great freshman year."
In the jumps, senior Kawanna Brooks will play a significant role after qualifying for the NCAA West Preliminary Round of Championships in the long jump and the 100m hurdles. Brooks also set the 10th longest triple jump mark in school history along with setting the fifth-best heptathlon score at the conference championships. Brooks will be joined by senior Marissa Golliday in the multi's. In her first year in the multi-events, she scored the fourth-most points in school history in the heptathlon at the Big Ten meet and set personal bests in every event. Teammate Kristin Morrison will also add depth to this group after setting personal bests in the heptathlon and pentathlon last year. Coach Buford-Bailey has high hopes for the trio of seniors.
"Marissa is on track to taking down the school record and her motivation for the top spot in her senior year is evident," Buford-Bailey said. "It's exciting to see how much each of their event areas improves upon from one year to the next. Marissa, Kristin and Kawanna are all working on getting stronger in their weaker events and that dedication is paying off in practice. This should be a very good year for us in the Multi's."
Juniors Kristen Wilson and Mariah Smith will lead the way for the Illini in the throws group. Wilson is coming off of a year where she set the eighth best shot put mark in school history while also setting personal bests in the discus and the shot put indoors. Smith also broke into the top-10 all-time performance lists in the discus throw, setting the seventh best mark at the Tom Botts Invitational.
"Kristin and Mariah are coming along well in the throwing events," Buford-Bailey said. "Their contributions on the Big Ten level will play a major role for us as team since we haven't scored points in this event area since Aja Evans' departure."