All-American hurdler Tamika Robinson and the Illini eye a successful 2011 season.
Jan. 13, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Despite graduating a three-time national champion and an All-American shot putter, head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey believes the 2011 Illinois women's track and field squad will remain competitive at the conference and national level with a balanced team effort. The Illini will look to score points in several areas at the Big Ten meet to account for what they lost from a year ago with the goal of finishing in the upper-half of the Big Ten.
"We want to improve our Big Ten team finishes from last season," Buford-Bailey said. "Our goal is to have top-five finishes at both the indoor and outdoor conference meets. The athletes we expect to be big scorers have looked really good during fall training, so we are on the right track toward attaining that goal."
The Illini are without nine-time All-American Angela Bizzarri, who signed a professional running contract following graduation, five-time All-American Aja Evans and two-time All-Big Ten honoree Alecia Beckford-Stewart. A more experienced sprint/hurdles crew and an improved middle distance group will carry the load for the Illini while the Orange and Blue also will look for important contributions from the distance and field event areas.
"Last year, we counted on a couple of athletes to score the bulk of our points, but this year we look to have more of an all-around team with strong performances from each area," Buford-Bailey said. "It will have to be a collective effort. We have some people who are very versatile and can do multiple events, so we can have a balanced team across the board."
With essentially every contributor back among the sprinters, Buford-Bailey sees several athletes who can double-up in events and maximize their ability to score points. Junior Tamika Robinson leads off the 4x100m relay, which returns all four legs after qualifying for the NCAA Championships in 2010. Junior Ashley Kelly, sophomore Kayla Smith and senior Melissa Bates are each back and hope to make noise individually and as part of the relay.
"We didn't lose anybody in the sprints and ran really well in the 4x100m relay last year, so I see that group taking another step forward with everyone back," Buford-Bailey said. "Our sprinters can run multiple events and will look to score at both Big Ten meets, which will be key for us. It will be important for that group to be all-around athletes and step up when it counts."
The Illini expect to make big strides in the short sprints after missing out on scoring chances a year ago in the different events. Robinson scored the lone point for Illinois in the 60m dash during the Big Ten Indoor Championships while the Illini did not have a single finalist in the 100m at the outdoor conference meet. Kayla Smith showed glimpses of what she is capable of last season and is ready to build on that during her sophomore campaign while Cheria Morgan hopes for a solid senior season.
"We are really focusing on gaining more points in the short sprints," Buford-Bailey said. "We only had one point from that group indoors and didn't have anyone make the final in the 100m outdoors. I look for Tamika, Kayla and Cheria to be the main ones in that group."
Bates and Kelly are also back along with juniors Ryisha Boyd and Latoya Griffith as part of the 4x400m relay that qualified for the NCAA Championships in 2010. That foursome, which also took second at Big Ten indoors and third at Big Ten outdoors, will contend for a Big Ten title and will look to score points at Nationals.
"Our 4x400m relay is also going to be strong again this year with everyone back," Buford-Bailey said. "They are really motivated to qualify for Nationals and put points on the board there. It will be a big challenge, but I think they are up to it."
Bates finished the year on a positive note by qualifying for the NCAA Championships individually in the 200m with a personal-best time and as the anchor leg on both relays. The Grand Prairie, Texas, native was the outdoor Big Ten champion in the 400m in 2009 and eyes another conference title in her final season at Illinois.
"Melissa saw her potential near the end of last season," Buford-Bailey said. "We want that momentum to carry into this year. She has really worked on her speed in the offseason and has become a much stronger athlete."
Kelly scored individually at both Big Ten meets a year ago and will work to move up the standings again this year. She took fourth in the 400m at the indoor conference meet and third in the event at the outdoor meet while also tallying a fifth-place showing in the 200m.
"Ashley and the upperclassmen are really acting like leaders this year," Buford Bailey said. "I like how they have stepped up to the plate to lead our sprint corps and our team as a whole."
Illinois does return one All-American in junior Tamika Robinson, who earned the accolade in the 100m hurdles at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The Chicago, Ill., native accomplished the feat in just her first full year of hurdling and also qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 60m hurdles, where she just missed making the final. Robinson, who also was the runner-up in the 100m hurdles at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, is primed for her first conference title and a shot at scoring points at Nationals.
"Tamika is really focused and wants to take it to another level this year," Buford-Bailey said. "Her confidence is up after qualifying for Nationals for the first time a year ago. She is a contender for the title in the Big Ten and will be a major player for our team this year."
In the 400m hurdles, junior Latoya Griffith reached the podium at the Big Ten meet a year ago and is poised to be one of the top hurdlers once again. The St. Andrews, Barbados, native took third at the conference meet and was a national qualifier in the event in 2010.
"Latoya has raised her expectations for this season," Buford-Bailey said. "With how well she was training last year, she could have ran a lot faster and hopes to do that this season. She will be among the best in the conference in the 400m hurdles and will look to make it to Nationals."
After not scoring a point in the middle distance events at the 2010 conference meets, Illinois expects that to change in 2011 after focusing efforts in the area during the offseason. The Illini welcome three solid 800m runners to the group in sophomore transfer Stephanie Morgan, a two-time All-Region cross country runner, and a pair of freshmen, Amanda Duvendack and Samantha Murphy. They will join Griffith and Jayla McArthur as the main factors in the middle distance section.
"We scored zero points in the middle distances last year, so the potential to have multiple scorers in that area will have a big impact on our point total," Buford-Bailey said. "Stephanie Morgan ended the year as our number one cross country runner and our two freshmen were successful 800m runners in high school. It will be great to have some depth in the event, so I expect to see good things from each of them."
Morgan, who transferred from Baylor, led the Illini at the final cross country meet of the season, picking up All-Region honors with the sixth-fastest time in school history. Duvendack won back-to-back Illinois Class 2A state titles in the 800m while Murphy was the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) 800m champion in 2010.
Seniors Elizabeth Boyle and Chantelle Groenewoud will lead Jeremy Rasmussen's distance crew, which will use a group effort to make up for the loss of Bizzarri. Boyle, who did not have cross country eligibility remaining, still has a full season of track left and will look to make the most of her final year. Both seniors qualified for the NCAA West Preliminary Round of Championship and scored at the Big Ten Championships. Groenewoud was fourth in the 3,000m steeplechase while Boyle took seventh in the 3,000m at the indoor championships and eighth in the 10,000m at the outdoor championships.
"Those two seniors will be great leaders for our distance team," Buford-Bailey said. "Elizabeth is extremely anxious to run after sitting out cross country. Chantelle is always a mainstay in the lineup and solid for us."
Other Illini to keep an eye on include Stacy Hague, who had a breakout cross country season, and Courtney Yaeger, who competed at the 2010 USA Junior Championships, along with a pair of 3,000m steeplechasers in Madeline Aufmann and Amber Stack.
Field Events (Jumps / Throws / Pole Vault / Multi-Events)
Mike Erb's field events group will be without Big Ten standouts Aja Evans and Alecia Beckford-Stewart, but will return several athletes ready for a breakout year. Senior Kelly Washington scored in the heptathlon at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships and will look to improve on that finish while also competing in the pentathlon during the indoor season.
Junior Kendall McCaugherty and sophomore Shinelle Proctor will compete for the Illini in the high jump. McCaugherty just missed scoring at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships with a ninth-place finish while Proctor is back with a full fall of training after coming to Illinois at the semester last year.
"Kendall has been really close to being a scorer, so hopefully she can put some points on the board," Buford-Bailey said. "Shinelle has really improved now that she has had a full year to be here."
In the horizontal jumps, sophomore Kawanna Brooks, who qualified for the NCAA West Preliminary Round in the long jump in 2010, and junior Alexandria Smith, who was a Big Ten scorer in 2009, will be the main competitors. In the throws, the Illini welcome a handful of newcomers, highlighted by freshman Kristen Wilson, while the pole vault group will be led by junior Kaitlin Vicari.
"We have a very young throws and pole vault group," Buford-Bailey said. "They are still developing but over time will be solid for us in the future."