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'Extremely validating': Duke women's track and field captures first-ever ACC Championship

The women's 4x400 relay team took home gold Saturday.
The women's 4x400 relay team took home gold Saturday.

Since a fifth-place finish in 2017, Duke women's track and field has been stuck in neutral at the ACC Outdoor Championships, failing to crack higher than seventh in 2018 or 2019. 

Well, consider that little dry spell over, and over in a monumental way. 

For the first time in program history, the Blue Devils captured the ACC Outdoor crown Saturday, racking up 110 points in Raleigh to become co-champions alongside Florida State. 

"It's something that I knew was possible, and we've talked about it," director Shawn Wilbourn said. "We talked about it with the women, and we just worked hard on changing the culture and getting them to believe and believe that they could do it."

Going into the final event Saturday night, Duke trailed the Seminoles 107-100. That may have been too much to ask in some instances, but in the Blue Devils' case, it just so happened that the climax of ACCs featured arguably their most prolific event on the women's side—the 4x400m relay. 

2021 has been defined in part by the record-setting Duke relay unit, with Saturday being more of the same. The combination of Jenna Crean, Iman Sule, Elena Brown-Soler and Brittany Aveni made quick work of the rest of the field, clipping Virginia by just under two seconds with a time of 3:30.47. The Blue Devils' gold medal, along with Florida State coming in sixth, resulted in the 110-110 gridlock. 

The women's team stands out even more considering the fact that on the men's side, the Blue Devils—despite Evan Lee, Alex Miley and Connor Atkinson all medaling—finished in joint eighth with 40 points. 

Despite some medalist-level performances in spots, the women's team has been unable to put together a postseason performance like this one in quite some time. What was the issue then?  The talk of the town all year has been the need to build more depth through the roster, a task that seemingly would take another season or so. 

Newsflash—it did not take another season or so. Thanks to an influx of transfers, a majority of whom spent the first part of their respective college careers in the Ivy League, Duke found an immediate solution to its depth dilemma. And at ACCs, those roster insertions paid major dividends.

Julia Valenti, a former Dartmouth standout, finished as the silver medalist in the pole vault, while Cha'Mia Rothwell, Valenti's fellow Big Green alum, captured bronze in the 100m hurdles. Both events have been each athlete's go-to during their respective careers, displaying just how valuable they have been as Blue Devils.

"Once again, it's a team effort," Wilbourn said. "We ask the distance runners to help out, we ask the sprinters to help out. You know, Julia Valenti in the pole vault started us off by getting second place and getting us eight points right from the jump, so it was a whole team effort."

Adding a group of experienced newcomers into the equation is a bonus, though. In order for the Blue Devils to even be in a position where graduate transfers can help push the program to the next level, the initial foundation has to be steady. With the likes of Erin Marsh and Aveni giving Duke everything they had in recent years, it's safe to say that the bedrock of the program was stable.

Aveni and Sule were the only Blue Devils to medal in two events, with the former bringing home gold as part of the aforementioned 4x400m relay as well as in the 400m and latter winning the silver in the 400m. Marsh, true to her all-around nature, was the silver medalist in the heptathlon. Those two, alongside other upperclassmen such as Lauren Hoffman, Michaela Reinhart and Leigha Torino, finally got to take part in a championship event that saw the Blue Devils put it all together. 

"Coming into this meet, I think we all felt like 'Listen, this is it, we can do it, we have the team that can get it done,'" Wilbourn said."For them to, especially [Aveni], she was the workhouse, her and Erin Marsh—just the number of events that they did and the total number of points that those two brought in—it's just very special to see them do that to get the opportunity to win the championship."

Still, with so much of the production being upperclassmen, the coaching staff has certainly looked to identify those who will carry the program into the future. Unsurprisingly, the search might start with sophomore Elasia Campbell. Campbell’s 1.78-meter display gave her first place in the high jump Saturday, a strong showing from someone who has been a force in that event since her debut. 

And then there's Wilbourn, who has been on the job for less than a year after longtime director Norm Ogilvie stepped down last spring. The former Blue Devil assistant has been stedfast in his belief of how the program would operate under his watch. So far, that belief has been affirmed, with ACCs serving as a taste of what could be on the horizon for Duke.

"When I was named the interim, I looked at it as I was the guy," Wilbourn said. "Even though I had the interim label, I was still working like I was gonna be the coach from there on out, and so I just operated that way. We continued to recruit, we continued to build it in what I saw as the way to do it and the way that we could be successful. It's extremely validating to see the vision come to fruition."  

The Blue Devils may be in the midst of a deserved celebration, but their attention likely won’t stray too far from the rest of the postseason. Starting May 27, Duke will suit up for the NCAA East Regional in Jacksonville, Fla.  

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