Eight tickets to Oregon, please.
In Jacksonville, Fla., the Blue Devils continued their postseason push last Wednesday through Saturday at the NCAA East Regional. By the end of the week, director Shawn Wilbourn and company got the results they anticipated, with eight women—Erin Marsh, Zoe Hughes, Brittany Aveni, Halle Bieber, Elena Brown-Soler, Cha’Mia Rothwell, Lauren Hoffman and Iman Sule—qualifying for next week’s NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore.
“On the women’s side, it was extremely successful. We came to get kids qualified to go to Eugene, and we accomplished that with the ones that we were expecting to get qualified,” Wilbourn said.
Before regionals had even began, Marsh and Hughes had already clinched spots in the heptathlon. Marsh will make her second straight appearance at NCAA Outdoors, while Hughes will make her debut at nationals after transferring in from Harvard before this season.
Saturday, the Blue Devils ensured that their heptathlon pair would have some company in the Beaver State, and the contributions came from an expected source. All year, the Blue Devil foundation has been minted upon their relay groups. Regionals were a continuation of that trend, with the women’s 4x100m team reaching a milestone along the way.
“We’ve never qualified a 4x100 at Duke, so that was a first and we kinda broke a barrier down,” Wilbourn said. “We were a little nervous coming off of ACCs, where we got DQed, and we worked on it, made some changes. We still have some work to do, we still didn’t have great handoffs, but they were better and we got to stick around, so that piece of it worked out well.”
The team of Aveni, Bieber, Brown-Soler and Rothwell came in at 44.08 seconds, capturing third place in their heat and automatically qualifying for NCAAs.
In the women’s 4x400m, the combination of Aveni, Brown-Soler, Hoffman and Sule outdid their ACC-title clinching performance from earlier this month. With a 3:29.19 mark, Duke set a new program benchmark and guaranteed a spot at NCAAs in the event for the third straight year.
“The 4x400 has kinda been our bread and butter, and that’s what we’ve built the women’s program around,” Wilbourn said. “We felt confident they would get through and we’re most excited just about how fast they actually ran, we lowered the school record again.”
Four Blue Devils qualified in multiple events—Aveni, Brown-Soler, Rothwell and Hoffman. While Brown-Soler is suiting up for the two relays, Rothwell and Hoffman will take the stage as individuals along with their roles on the 4x100m and 4x400m groups, respectively. Rothwell put 12.95 seconds on the board in the 100m hurdles, becoming the first Blue Devil to make it to NCAAs in that particular event.
Hoffman, on the other hand, had already been to NCAAs as an individual, qualifying in the 400m hurdles back in 2019. The Virginia native did it again Saturday, with a 57.60-second performance placing her in sixth in her heat and clinching a spot in the 400m hurdles next week.
Brown-Soler, Rothwell and Hoffman certainly impressed by qualifying in two events, but only Aveni will lace ‘em up for three different competitions. The Ohio native, along with her presence on both relay units, pulled off a second-place finish in the 400m at 51.79 seconds. With that, more history, as Aveni is now the only athlete to qualify for NCAAs in three outdoor events in the same year in program history.
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“This is the first time [Aveni] has made it past this meet, because it’s so competitive and it’s so stressful,” Wilbourn said regarding the senior’s performance in the 400m. “So the experience she gained coming to this meet, not getting through, helped her this year to get through.”
Unsurprisingly, seven of the eight Duke qualifiers are seniors or graduate students. Upperclassmen have led the charge throughout the outdoor campaign, a brand of leadership that will certainly set the bar for younger Blue Devils with hopes of reaching NCAAs in the future.
“That’s why it’s important that we get our younger kids qualified just to get here, so all the ones that made it here that didn’t move on to Oregon, it’s gonna benefit them down the road,” Wilbourn said.
Getting eight athletes into the final stage of the postseason is a notable achievement for the program, but there is a sense that more progress is on the horizon. Taking that next step, though, will require some clutch displays at this juncture of the season come 2022 and beyond.
“There were a couple on the men’s side and a couple of others that we knew had outside shots, and we were hoping that they’d have a big performance, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen,” Wilbourn said. “It’s a competitive meet, and you gotta be on, you gotta perform, and you gotta be able to mentally handle it as well.”
Now, it’s time for the group of eight to get geared up for the biggest stage in collegiate track and field. June 9 might be over a week away, but Duke is getting right back in the lab this week before heading out to Oregon.
“Tuesday we will slowly ramp things back up and try to get a good second half of the week of practice, and then we head out to Eugene early the following Monday,” Wilbourn said. “We’ll get a couple practice sessions out in Eugene, and then we get started on Thursday with the prelims for the women.”
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.