Just like that, Duke’s season is over. But it did not end without some postseason accolades.
With eight Blue Devils competing, including the 4x100m and 4x400m relay groups, at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last Thursday through Saturday, a chance to display the program’s progress was on deck. And while a 32nd-place finish on the women’s side might not jump off the screen, Duke still made some history in Eugene, Ore., with All-American distinction in six events and a program-high five top-10 finishes.
“It was an incredible week just to see these girls come in here and on this stage compete as well as they did,” director Shawn Wilbourn said. “It’s been a process getting to where we’re competitive at this level. And we had a group of women that came in and were competitive and they proved that by getting through the prelims, getting into the finals and we’re coming out of here with some hardware, some All-American trophies.”
Saturday’s final event, the 4x400m relay, was a barn burner. Just over six seconds separated the final nine teams, with Texas A&M edging out USC to take the crown. A bit further down the leaderboard were the Blue Devils, who finished in seventh at 3:28.27 to claim the title of First Team All-Americans.
Finding a steady stable of sprinters has been a major emphasis in Durham in recent years, and this weekend was the culmination of that quest. Now, what has become a key cog of the program can finally be considered one of the nation’s best, thanks to Brittany Aveni, Iman Sule, Elena Brown-Soler and Lauren Hoffman.
“That’s an event that, when I first got here as an assistant coach 13 years ago, and kinda looked around and said ‘Alright, we’re a distance program, we don’t have a lot of sprinters, we don’t have a lot of jumpers, where do we start?’” Wilbourn said. “That was the event where ‘Alright, let’s start with the 4x4, let’s build a 4x4 and see where we can go with it.’”
The 4x100m group, on the other hand, mustered up an 11th-place finish Thursday qualifying to narrowly miss out on the finals. While the combination of Aveni, Brown-Soler, Cha’Mia Rothwell and Halle Bieber were not a part of Saturday’s action, the unit still did enough to be named Second Team All-Americans.
Now for some individual results. Entering the heptathlon, Erin Marsh and Zoe Hughes were looking to outpace their respective seedings and put their names on the All-American list. Hughes, after a decorated career at Harvard, combined with Marsh to form a dynamic heptathlon duo, something that programs constantly search for. The England native barely missed out on second team All-American honors, but still finished in a more than respectable 17th.
“Having two girls in the same event, that’s a big deal first off. Zoe was ranked 23rd coming in and she finished 17th. So she did better than she was seeded coming in, that means she came in and she competed her butt off and challenged herself,” Wilbourn said.
Marsh, who has been the model of consistency throughout the spring, finished in fourth with 5,924 points across the seven events. In fact, the Georgia native was the best performing Blue Devil at NCAAs since Juliet Bottorff’s third-place showing in the 10,000m seven years ago.
Going into the 800m—the last event of the heptathlon—the senior sat in fifth, needing a standout showing to jump up the leaderboard. Well, Marsh did exactly that, speeding through the event in 2:13.54 to move up a spot when the dust settled.
“To see [Marsh] come in and still fight like she did, she had ups and downs but at the very last event when she needed a big PR to place higher, she had a huge PR in the 800, that just showed what a competitor she is,” Wilbourn said.
As part of the batch of transfers, including Hughes, that added so much to the Duke equation this year, Rothwell constantly racked up top tier performances in the 100m hurdles. In her first appearance at NCAAs, the graduate student became a First Team All-American thanks to a 13.14-second time leading to her seventh-place showing.
“Coming in, she had one year left and she had never made it to the NCAA finals before. So yeah, it was a big deal,” Wilbourn said. “She was nervous, she’s never competed on this stage and to be here first time ever and to make it to the finals and then to get seventh, it’s just a tremendous accomplishment. The girls that make it to that level are some of the best—not only in the country, but in the world—especially in that event, and she showed that she can do it and compete with them, and it’s exciting.”
The second hurdles category—the 400m—featured Hoffman for the second time in her career. She usurped her 19th-place finish in 2019 with a 10th-place showing this time around, as the senior came in at 57.91 seconds to slot in as a second team All-American.
Lastly, Aveni capped off her collegiate career in serious style. She rewrote the Duke record books with All-American recognition in three categories—4x400m, 4x100m and 400m—bringing her total to five, the most All-American honors for a single athlete in Blue Devil women’s track and field history.
In a testament to how much stamina is needed at the grueling stretch of NCAAs, the graduate student came in ninth in the 400m Saturday before taking part in the evening 4x400m relay a few hours later. After a quick start, Aveni crossed the 400m finish line in 51.77 seconds, securing second team All-American status.
“She got a little excited, she went out a little fast and kinda had trouble holding on,” Wilbourn said. “We were hoping for her to obviously place in the top eight, but she just kinda had a little bit of a mishap with how she ran the race and her race model. But what she did is she learned from that and was able to come back in the 4x4 and she had the third fastest split of any of the girls in the 4x4 from the other teams.”
The Blue Devils—specifically Aveni, Hoffman, Marsh and Rothwell—will now turn their attention to U.S. Olympic Trials, which are from June 18-27 back in Oregon. But in terms of the larger picture, the last few days and the season as a whole bode well for Duke’s future. From Wilbourn shedding the interim tag back in April, to the constant high finishes from the likes of Marsh and Aveni and the relay successes, 2021 has been pretty kind to the Blue Devils.
“It changes the culture of our program,” Wilbourn said. “When we recruit, we can say ‘listen, you’re gonna come to Duke, you’re gonna have an opportunity to compete at the NCAA Championships and you’re gonna have an opportunity to be an All-American.… It just sets a higher bar, and that enables us to recruit at a higher level. So, it just kickstarts us to be competitive with some of the top programs in the country.”
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.