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Duke track and field 2021 season preview

Senior Erin Marsh (middle) earned a bronze medal in the pentathlon in last week's NCAA Indoor Championships.
Senior Erin Marsh (middle) earned a bronze medal in the pentathlon in last week's NCAA Indoor Championships.

Overview

Last year was a hectic one for every track and field program in the country, but the Blue Devils dealt with a unique challenge outside of COVID-19. After 30 years as a member of the coaching staff—including the last 17 as the director of the track and field program—Norm Ogilvie announced his retirement last April. With Shawn Wilbourn now at the helm as interim head coach, a new era for track and field in Durham is underway. 

Duke brings back some key contributors from last spring—on both the men’s and women’s side—while adding some new blood via transfers. During the winter season, standouts such as Erin Marsh, Leigha Torino and Ben Beatty showed that they had what it takes to reach the podium in their respective events. The Blue Devils seem primed to improve on the eighth-place finish by the women and 10th-place finish by the men at the 2019 ACC Outdoor Championships, the last time the event was staged.

New athlete to watch: Elena Brown-Soler (Sprints)

Thanks to Ivy League rules preventing graduate students from participating in athletics—a standard that was recently overturned for 2021-22—the Blue Devils benefitted from an influx of experienced and talented transfers. One name that sticks out is Elena Brown-Soler, who amassed quite the resumé during her four years at Pennsylvania. Brown-Soler was named an All-Ivy League first teamer in the indoor 4x400 in 2019 and 2020, along with being a first team all-conference performer in the outdoor 4x400 and the outdoor 4x100 in 2019. 

The Georgia native was even an Honorable Mention All-American in the 4x400 back in 2019, so she clearly has what it takes in relays. Duke already poses a solid group in that event, with Marsh, Lauren Hoffman, Carly King and Hailey Williams, among others, churning out high-level finishes in the indoor relays over the last couple months. Bringing in Brown-Soler will only make the women’s 4x400 unit more of a strength for the program. And if she's ever needed elsewhere, Brown-Solder does have some strong finishes in multi-events.

Returning athlete to watch: Erin Marsh (Multi-Events)

Marsh is your classic jack-of-all-trades, stacking up superb performances left and right in the pentathlon and heptathlon throughout her career. Just last weekend at the NCAA Indoor Championships, Marsh finished third in the pentathlon, collecting first-team All-American honors. The multi-dimensional senior has received All-ACC recognition nine separate times, including first-team distinction in the outdoor heptathlon, the indoor 60-meter hurdles, the indoor pentathlon twice and the high jump twice.

Marsh is looking to make even more noise this spring. Last year’s cancellation of the ACC and NCAA Outdoor Championships were a gut-punch for so many spring sport athletes across the country, and like the rest, Marsh was unable to show what she was capable of on the biggest stage. Now, she has the opportunity to do just that.

Most anticipated event: ACC Outdoor Championships

This one is a no-doubter. ACCs were canceled, along with the entire outdoor schedule, last season, so the Blue Devils were not granted the chance to see how close they could come to the stalwarts of the ACC. In particular, Duke is chasing the likes of North Carolina and Florida State on the men’s side and Miami and Florida State on the women’s side, with any opportunity to compete against those programs a great way for the Blue Devils to evaluate their trajectory. Plus, ACCs will likely be the final meet in which the entire team can compete, as the NCAA Outdoor Championship qualification system is on an individual basis. 

Last month, the Blue Devil women showed that they belonged in the same conversation as some of the elite squads in the conference, as Duke entered the final day of competition at ACC Indoors in first place. While the Blue Devils slipped to sixth on day three, the depth and experience on the roster is enough to sustain that high-level position once mid-May rolls around. For the men, Duke has been stuck in neutral in recent tries at ACCs, failing to break through into the top eight the last four years. This time around, making the leap into the top half of the ACC is without question the end goal. 

Best-case scenario

Duke’s upperclassmen shine, and the transfers step up to fortify the roster. The Blue Devils build toward ACCs, with the women ending up in the top four and the men finally snatching their first top-eight finish since 2015. Both 4x400 groups qualify for NCAAs, a fitting end to the careers of departing seniors and a promising sign for the future. In Eugene, Ore.—where the NCAA Outdoor Championships will take place June 8-11—Duke adds to its list of All-Americans thanks to some stellar displays from the usual suspects and breakthroughs by senior distance runners Michaela Reinhart and CJ Ambrosio, among others. 

Worst-case scenario

The ACC just proves to be too littered with steady programs for either the Blue Devil men or women to make strides on the final conference leaderboard. With some youngsters still a year or so away from reaching their full potential, the upperclassmen are forced to carry the load, an indication that Duke still needs to build more depth. Duke finishes outside the top six in the women’s competition and falls to the lower third in the men’s competition. 

Prediction

Women: 5th at ACCs, 38th at NCAAs

Men: 8th at ACCs, 63rd at NCAAs


Editor's note: This is a part of The Chronicle's series of previews for Duke's spring sports, the rest of which can be found here.


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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