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Clark headlines 7 Blue Devil women competing in NCAA indoor championships

<p>Senior Megan Clark will look to capture an NCAA indoor crown this weekend in the pole vault.</p>

Senior Megan Clark will look to capture an NCAA indoor crown this weekend in the pole vault.

Senior Megan Clark posted a new personal, program and conference best in the pole vault in early February, clearing 15 feet, 1 inch to win the Armory Collegiate Invitational—a mark that would have matched the winning vault from the past two national championships. 

But the Fort Benning, Ga., native may have to set a new NCAA meet record to come away with the title Saturday.

Clark and six other Blue Devils will head to Hoover, Ala., to represent the No. 15 Duke women at the two-day NCAA indoor championships starting Friday, looking for the program's best team finish and first individual title since 2007.  

By winning the women’s pole vault at the Armory Collegiate Invitational in New York Feb. 6 with the nation’s best jump so far this season, Clark became just the fourth female collegiate vaulter in history to clear 15 feet. Her performance marked the completion of Project Four-Sixty and as she enters her final indoor postseason, the senior seemed poised as the clear favorite for the national title.

“[Associate head coach Shawn] Wilbourn has been getting me to focus more on the process and trusting in my training rather than focusing on clearing heights. Seeds don’t matter when it’s anybody’s meet to win… I’m jumping higher now than I was at this point in the season last year, and I’m excited to build on that,” Clark said after the Armory Invitational.

But just a week later, the elite 15-foot club welcomed a new member, freshman Alexis Weeks of Arkansas. Weeks equaled Clark’s 15 feet, 1 inch and set a new NCAA freshman record at the Tucson Invitational Feb. 12 to tie for the top mark in the nation to date.

The 2016 ACC indoor champion took home the silver in the women’s pole vault at the 2015 NCAA indoor championships in 14 feet, 9 inches—a mark that would have given her the gold at all but three indoor national-championship meets since the event was first contested in 1998. Before the 2015 season, in fact, only one collegiate vaulter had ever cleared 15 feet—2014 indoor champion Kaitlin Petrillose of Texas—and 14 feet, 7 inches had been the winning mark for three consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2013.

But last season, two vaulters joined Petrillose in the elite club within 17 hours of each other. Sandi Morris of Arkansas—who would earn the 2015 indoor national title later in the season—cleared 15 feet, 1 1/2 inches on her third and final attempt Jan. 15, 2015. The next day, the eventual 2015 outdoor champion Demi Payne of Stephen F. Austin set the bar even higher, clearing 15 feet, 2 1/4 inches. With Clark’s and Week’s February performances, the elite club of 15-footers now has five members—three of whom will face off on the runway Saturday as Petrillose returns to the national stage for her senior campaign.

“If she focuses on doing what she has done in practice, the results will take care of themselves. If you put this pressure on yourself going into a big meet that you have to do better than you have done before, it can backfire,” Wilbourn said. “But she’s been undefeated against collegiate competition, and she hasn’t done that before. So that gives her a lot of confidence.”

A win in the pole vault for Clark would mark the first individual victory by a Blue Devil since Shannon Rowbury won the mile in 2007—Duke’s lone women’s indoor national title. Rowbury and a squad composed entirely of distance runners racked up 18 points for a 12th-place overall team finish.

But with one less individual-event athlete on this year’s national-championship roster than the 2007 squad, the Blue Devils will still aim to finish in the top 15 and make history of their own. 

Redshirt senior Karli Johonnot already etched her name in the Duke record books as the first female multi-event athlete to qualify for the indoor championships in program history. The Las Vegas native earned a converted total of 4,304 points for the school record and a dominant victory at the Tobacco Road Cup in January, highlighting her comeback from tearing her Achilles tendon in 2012—an injury which cut short her freshman season and forced her to redshirt the 2013 campaign. Johonnot already has a taste for postseason success after claiming the second ACC pentathlon title of her career Feb. 25 and will aim to wrap up her indoor career with All-America honors thanks to a top-eight finish.

The Blue Devil multi-event specialist holds the eighth-best score in the nation to date and will look to hold that spot against Friday’s field of 16.

“She has the physical tools to be one of the top girls in the country—she is one of the top girls in the country,” Wilbourn said. “We’ve been working on getting her to believe that and have that confidence.”

Senior Anima Banks rounds out the three individual athletes competing this weekend and could serve double-duty as the anchor leg of the women’s distance medley relay.

Shattering her personal record and the program record in the 800 meters with a time of 2:03.41, Banks jumped from 12th to second in the national rankings as the top collegiate harrier across the line at the David Hemery Valentine Invitational in Boston Feb. 12. Her time now gives her the No. 4 seed heading into the national championships.

“Anima has had a fantastic season and she is running so well in workouts right now—I’ve never seen her look better,” Duke director of track and field Norm Ogilvie said. “Hopefully that means something big for her. It won’t be easy—she’s probably going to have to run a personal best to make the final. But I like her chances of scoring some pretty big team points for us.”

The finals of the 800 meters will take place Saturday evening, but Banks will have to qualify as one of the top-eight finishers in Friday’s semifinals—less than two hours before the women’s distance medley relay will toe the line.

Duke’s squad of freshman Kim Hallowes, sophomore Maddy Price, junior Madeline Kopp and Banks is seeded 10th with a converted time of 11:04.27 from the UCS Invitational Feb. 20. Hallowes will open the race with the 1,200-meter leg and sprinters Price and Kopp will cover the 400 and 800 meters, respectively. But if Banks advances to Saturday’s finals in the 800 meters, Ogilvie may elect to save her legs from running double her signature distance with the mile anchor leg. Senior Olivia Anderson would then fill Banks’ spot as an alternate.  

“We are hoping Anima makes the finals and gives Olivia the chance to run,” Ogilvie said. “Our odds are a little higher with Anima on the anchor, but Olivia will be fresh, psyched and ready. Either way, I’m optimistic about our DMR’s chances to score.” 

Johonnot will kick off the meet for Duke with the first event of the pentathlon, taking to the track for the 60-meter hurdles early Friday afternoon.

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