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Stars lead Duke track and field to ACC championship eyeing program's first conference title

<p>Anima Banks will compete in several events throughout the weekend as she looks to help the Blue Devils earn their first-ever conference title on the women's side.&nbsp;</p>

Anima Banks will compete in several events throughout the weekend as she looks to help the Blue Devils earn their first-ever conference title on the women's side. 

For most Duke seniors, their final year will come to a close with Sunday’s commencement ceremony, but a handful of Blue Devils have the chance to stave off their final day by extending their postseason a little longer.

Duke will head to the Mike Long Track in Tallahassee, Fla., for the three-day ACC championship starting Friday with hopes of improving on last season’s performances of sixth for the men and eighth for the women, in addition to expanding its NCAA regional team roster.

The senior women will look wrap up their final ACC meet on a high note by claiming the first team title in program history. Clemson and Florida State have traded the team title since 2009, and the Seminoles have a three-year win streak on the men’s side heading into this year’s meet on their home track.

“If everything goes well, we have the chance to win,” Duke associate head coach Shawn Wilbourn said. “Every point is going to count. I’ve been telling my girls to go for the win because to do that means we are competing and not necessarily going for marks.”

Senior Anima Banks is slated to compete in three events for a potential five races during the course of the three-day competition. She will first toe the line for the preliminary heats of the women’s 1,500 meters Friday evening, then her signature 800 meters—in which she is the top-seeded harrier—a day later. But the Mamaroneck, N.Y., native could be back on the track three times in three hours Sunday if she advances to the finals in her individual races and competes in the 4-x-400-meter relay.

“We are going to ask a lot of Anima this weekend,” Duke director of track and field Norm Ogilvie said. “She’s one of the key parts for us in aiming for that team title. She has a great shot to win the 800 and to place high in the 1,500—maybe even win that, too."

The Blue Devils will also look for key points from pole vaulters Megan Clark and Madison Heath. The duo will aim to repeat their one-three finish from the indoor ACC championships but will face a stiff test from Miami’s Alysha Newman—one of three vaulters in the nation alongside Clark to break the 15-foot barrier during the regular season. 

Clark’s outdoor best of 15 feet, 2 1/4 inches tops Newman’s by more than an inch and stands as the second-highest vault in the NCAA. Heath posted a personal-best clearance of 14 feet, 1 1/4 inches at the Raleigh Relays in March—good for 15th in the nation.

“The ACC is one of the best women’s pole vault conferences in the country,” Wilbourn said. “It’s good because it brings out the best in Megan with the competition high.”

Rounding out Duke’s graduating contingent, redshirt seniors Karli Johonnot and Teddi Maslowski will compete in the women’s heptathlon. Johonnot holds the school record in the indoor pentathlon from her first-place performance at the indoor conference championships, and Maslowski nearly broke her own program-best mark in the outdoor multi-event contest at the Mt. Sac Relays April 13. 

Her season-best total of 5,569 stands tied for 18th in the nation, but the Burgettstown, Pa., native will have a chance to move up the rankings this weekend. The seven-event competition will span Friday and Saturday, but both athletes will also be busy in individual contests.

Maslowski will also join Maddy Price, Madeline Kopp, India Lowe and MacKenzie Kerr in the sprint relays.

“We feel we can be very successful in those relays, especially the 4-x-400,” Wilbourn said. “That has been strong for us in recent years, and we have recruited with hopes of keeping that going. India and Mackenzie have done really well, and it will be exciting to see them step into an even more permanent role next year.”

On the men’s side, the Blue Devils will be missing two of their top decathletes as Tanner Johnson and Robert Rohner—the 2015 ACC champion and fifth-place finisher, respectively—are redshirting the outdoor season. Junior Chaz Hawkins will look to do double-duty filling their shoes and competing in his signature sprints. Hawkins holds Duke’s top mark in the decathlon so far this season, as well as the team’s top times in the 100- and 400-meter sprints.

Like Banks, graduate student Shaun Thompson will shoulder the load of two individual events on the track, but neither of them will be his signature 10,000 meters, in which he holds the nation’s sixth-best time so far this season. The Baldwinsville, N.Y., native hopes to spare his legs for the East regional championships at the end of May by competing in Saturday’s 3,000-meter steeplechase and Sunday’s 5,000 meters.

Redshirt senior Thomas Lang enters the men’s javelin contest as the two-time conference champion and is the favorite to complete the feat again as the top seed and 22nd-ranked thrower in the country with his mark of 237 feet, 2 inches from the Beach Invitational April 15. The Royersford, Pa., native has a penchant for saving his best for last—he secured both titles on his final throw—and will look to leave his mark in the Duke record books and on the team score.

“We would love for him to three-peat,” Ogilvie said. “Now is no time not to go after the win. We don’t really care about the distance so much. We aren’t putting any added pressure on him in saying that—he wants it and knows he is capable of it.”

The meet will begin with the multi-events Friday, with the women’s heptathlon slated to begin at 11:30 a.m. and the 100-meter hurdles and the 100-meter dash kicking off the men’s decathlon at noon.


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