All-American Ashley Kelly will look to return to nationals as she competes in her senior season with the Illini.
Jan. 14, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After a strong finish in the 2011 season, in her fourth season at the helm, head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey believes the 2012 Illinois women's track and field squad will remain competitive at the conference and national level with a balanced team effort. Following a year where Illinois athletes collected nine total All-American distinctions, eight All-Big Ten selections, an individual Big Ten indoor title in the 400m, four broken school records, and points being scored at both the indoor and outdoor NCAA Championships, the Orange and Blue are looking to compete strong.
"The mentality is a lot different from last year," Buford-Bailey said. "I want us to come out of the gate right away. The standards are a lot higher this year. We won't except being on the lower end of the spectrum in the conference. I want to be in the top three in indoors and outdoors. I'm looking for everyone to step up. It's a team effort in order to win championships, everyone needs to contribute. It's all about contributing, you have to be a great competitor."
Despite the loss of All-American Tamika Robinson, and Big Ten point scorer Cheria Morgan, the Illini return many of the contributors back among the sprinters, Buford-Bailey sees several athletes who can double-up in events and maximize their ability to score points. The Illini are looking to bolster their performances in multiple events while working with the same girls.
"We put a lot of scholarship money and significant importance in that we need athletes who can do multiple events and can step up to the plate when it counts," said Buford-Bailey.
At the forefront of the sprint squad is All-American senior Ashley Kelly. She is coming off a superb year after breaking the indoor school record in the 400m, winning the indoor Big Ten title in the same event and earning All-American honors. She was also a member of the 4x100 relay team that captured second-time All-American honors.
"Ashley Kelly is the most important sprinter because she's proven to be a national contender and All-American," said Buford-Bailey. "She broke the school record last year in the 400 and has bigger goals this year. She's the main contributor to our sprints group."
Kelly will have help in freshman Ashley Spencer who transferred to Illinois from the University of Oklahoma. Buford-Bailey sees Spencer as being another versatile athlete for the Illini as Spencer won the 400m and 1,600m relay races as a senior at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, Ind. In addition to Spencer, sophomore Jesica Ejesime will be looked upon to contribute especially on the Big Ten level. She will look to run the 60m hurdles and 200m for the Illini this season.
Having suffered a hamstring injury last year, senior Latoya Griffith is excited to compete strong again after she qualified individually for the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 400m hurdles and as part of the 4x400m relay. Along with Griffith, sophomore Brianna Coleman, a transfer from University of Arkansas, will compete for the Fighting Illini in the 60m hurdles. Coleman is coming off a great year as a SEC finalist in the indoor and outdoor 60m hurdles.
"Ashley Spencer can do a lot of different events," said Buford-Bailey. "She can be very valuable across the board for us this year. She is definitely a star and isn't going to be afraid to compete. Latoya is also back and is healthy and very motivated."
Having qualified as a part of the 4X400m relay at the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships and scoring in Big Tens last season, senior Ryisha Boyd will play a large role for the Orange and Blue. Buford-Bailey is excited from what she has seen thus far in Boyd's training this year.
"Boyd has had a phenomenal fall training," Buford-Bailey said. "She has always been a Big Ten scorer for us and a national qualifier in the relays. She's somebody who we're hoping to be a big contributor."
The Illini are looking to capitalize on the success they had in the middle and long distances last year. Junior Stephanie Morgan picked up second-team All-Big Ten honors by grabbing the runner-up spot in the 800m in the indoor Big Ten Championships. Morgan, along with sophomore Samantha Murphy scored fourteen points for the Illini in the 800m race. Buford-Bailey is excited to add to the recent success with sophomore Amanda Duvendack and senior Jayla McArthur.
"Amanda had a very good fall season of training," Buford-Bailey said. "She will be a contributor in the 800m and 600m. Jayla has also had an incredible fall season of training and will be a major contributor in the 600m indoor."
Along with the middle distance runners, the Illini will have a strong group in their distance runners. Juniors Courtney Yeager and Amber Stack will look to pace the Orange and Blue. Freshmen Chloe Schmidt and Alyssa Schneider along with sophomore Katie Porada will also contribute. Schmidt was a five-time Pennsylvania state champion and six-time runner-up at the state meet while Schneider was a three-time 1,600m conference champion at Barlett High School.
"It's a young group in Alyssa, Chloe, and Katie", said Buford-Bailey. "I'd like them to bounce back from cross-country and have a good indoor season. Hopefully that will catapult them into the outdoor season with success."
FIELD EVENTS (JUMPS/THROWS/POLE VAULT/MULTI-EVENTS)
In his fourth season as the assistant coach, Mike Erb's field events will be led with a strong pole vaulting group. Coming off a fantastic freshman season where she broke the school record with a vault of 12-11 ½ (3.95m) at last year's Big Ten Championships, sophomore Stephanie Richartz is looking to continue to improve.
"She is our biggest contributor", Buford-Bailey said. "As a freshman she scored for both indoor and outdoor and qualified for nationals".
Junior Elizabeth Eitzen will also be a factor in the pole vault. After scoring in the outdoor conference meet last year, she along with Richartz are looking to dominate in the event.
In the jumps, both junior Kawanna Brooks and senior Kendall McCaugherty will play a role. Brooks scored at the Big Ten outdoor meet in the long jump and McCaugherty recorded the highest mark in the high jump for Illinois last season. Brooks will also participate in the triple jump. Senior Alexandria Smith will also add to the horizontal jumps. New to the multi-event's team is junior Marissa Golliday. After participating in the relays and middle distances, Golliday will be looked upon to score for the Illini in the pentathlon.
Sophomores Kristen Wilson and Mariah Smith will be leading the way for the Orange and Blue in the throwing events. Wilson comes off of the best weight throw for the Illini last year in the indoor season while Smith earned all-state honors in the discus and was an Illinois state finalist in shot put during her high-school career and hopes to continue that success for the Illini.