For Duke track and field, the end of February is always a crucial point in the indoor season, with this year being no different. The ACC Indoor Championships get started Thursday in Clemson, SC., and the Blue Devils are looking to take a step forward from last February’s fifth and ninth-place finishes for the women and men, respectively.
“I definitely think we can improve upon that,” interim head coach Shawn Wilbourn said. “We do have almost everybody back from a year ago and I believe that we’re going to generate more points on both the men’s and women’s side, compared to a year ago.”
While confidence within the program is high, the shuffling of the NCAA calendar—the cross country NCAA Championships were moved to the spring, similar to other traditional fall sports—has forced Duke to make adjustments to training and workloads.
“One of the unknowns is the fact that we’re in [an] unusual year with COVID, so with the cross country national championships being in a couple of weeks and both our men’s and women’s cross country team having a chance to go to NCAAs, we’re having to be really careful with the distance runners and what events they run," Wilbourn said. "For example, because they’re training for such long distances in cross country—typically we would have more athletes in the mile or the [800-meter]—but because some of those kids are running cross country, their training is geared more for those longer events.”
While the Blue Devils are constantly striving for balance and consistency in every event, some groups have stood out among the rest so far this winter. On the relay side, Wilbourn and the rest of the coaching staff have been able to rely on the men’s and women’s 4x400-meter groups for speed and chemistry. The women’s 4x400 team has the fourth-fastest time in the ACC, with the men not far behind at seventh-fastest.
The women’s 4x400 unit has fairly high expectations going into ACCs, especially considering how slim the margins can be at the end of a relay. The squad features a mix of veterans and youngsters, as freshman Hailey Williams, sophomore Carly King, juniors Nikki Merritt and Kelcie Simmons, and seniors Erin Marsh and Lauren Hoffman all rotate in and out of the event.
“If we can have a solid relay, then that's gonna mean we have some sprinters that can score individually as well, and that's the case,” Wilbourn said. “We're really young, indoors with our women’s [4x400]. But that being said, we feel like we have a chance to win it here at ACCs. We're going in with the fourth-fastest time, but the fastest time is only a couple seconds ahead of us and we don’t think we’ve ran our best race yet."
If last weekend was any indication, Duke can also certainly count on some of its upperclassmen—particularly redshirt senior Ben Beatty and senior Leigha Torino—for standout individual performances this week. Beatty, who has made a name for himself in multiple field events, has been a top-five machine in the men’s shot put throughout the winter, including a second-place showing at the Virginia Tech Challenge last Friday and a school record earlier in the season at the VT Elite Meet. Beatty will be suiting up for the shot put as well as the weight throw over the next few days.
Torino, meanwhile, has been rock solid in the women’s 800-meter, with three top-10 finishes of her own going into last Saturday’s Camel City Invitational. There, Torino took it a step further, checking in at 2:09.19 to take home first place. The Florida native will be someone to watch in that event at ACCs.
“It's been really nice, especially later in the year here, that's where they've kind of really turned it on,” Wilbourn said of Beatty and Torino. “You know, Ben’s last two meets he’s been over 18 meters in the shotput…and Leigha Torino has really been a pleasant surprise with her speed in the 800. Really, really coming on for us, and that's going to be a huge help with the fact that the women's cross country team is doing so well in the longer events. So, to have somebody that really specializes a little bit is a big deal for us.”
The last six weeks have undoubtedly been a grueling stretch for the program. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils have the opportunity to build off their recent success and turn those experiences into a high finish at the conference championships.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.