Approaching the end of a successful outdoor season, the Blue Devils got the chance to compete against the rest of the ACC this weekend—and they didn’t disappoint.
For the first time since 2011, Duke played host to the ACC Outdoor Championships, welcoming each of the conference’s 14 other schools to Morris Williams Stadium for the three-day event. When Saturday night rolled around and the festivities came to a close, the Blue Devil women had fallen just short of defending their title from a year ago with a second-place finish to Miami while the men’s team had collected its best placement since 2015, tying with Clemson for sixth place.
“Anytime you are, on the women’s side, in it to win it at the very end, you’ve done something special,” director of track and field and cross country Shawn Wilbourn said. “And with the women’s side, all the way to the last couple of events we still had a chance to win.”
Although Duke entered the final day of competition with a 9.5-point lead on the women’s side, the Hurricanes stormed back into the picture with 75 points Saturday to take back the conference crown from the Blue Devils. That left Duke fighting with Florida State and N.C. State in a tight race for second place.
In 2021, the Blue Devils won the women’s 4x400m relay to claim their first ACC Championship in dramatic fashion, using the literal last-gasp effort to tie Florida State at the top with 110 points apiece. While a repeat title was out of the question heading into the same event Saturday, the stakes were still plenty high: Duke sat at 90.5 points, trailing the Seminoles (95 points) and the Wolfpack (91 points) with one last chance to surge up the scoreboard.
“The girls knew what we had to do,” Wilbourn said of the women’s 4x400 relay team. “They knew what was at stake.”
With those stakes came an apparent sense of urgency, as junior Jenna Crean fought to take an early second-leg lead. From there, freshman Megan McGinnis gained separation from Clemson and Miami to set graduate student Lauren Hoffman up with a sizable bell-lap lead—one that she would hold on to in style, crossing the finish line in 3:33.88 to set a new facility record at Morris Williams.
Duke’s victory in the relay, coupled with Florida State’s fifth-place finish in the event, pushed the Blue Devil women into second place. That final gold medal for the Duke women made the biggest splash, but they needed every one of their four wins, two silvers and handful of bronzes to sneak past the Seminoles by 1.5 points, 100.5-99.
“I think our performances over the past couple of meets, couple of years has kind of raised our expectations and our women expect to win every time going in,” Wilbourn said. “So we got second, a year ago we would have been ecstatic to get second, and we’ve raised the bar to where now, we expect to win.”
Continued growth paid off for the men’s team, as it marched its way to its best finish in seven years. Graduate student Erick Duffy highlighted that strong performance with Duke’s first men’s pole vault gold medal since 1967, while junior Beau Allen claimed silver in the high jump.
“On the men, we’re chipping away, we’re getting better,” Wilbourn said. “Every time we go into a championship meet we get a little bit better, and I’m happy with being sixth on the men’s side, it’s better than we were indoors, it’s better than we were last year and the goal for the men is just to keep improving.”
When it comes to individual performances, though, perhaps nobody stands out more than Erin Marsh, who took her first-ever ACC outdoor gold medal in the heptathlon with 5,946 points—good for a new personal, school and facility mark while making her the first Blue Devil woman to ever win the heptathlon at the outdoor championships.
The graduate student also added a bronze medal in the 100m hurdles, prompting high praise from Wilbourn.
“Words can’t describe how valuable she’s been to our program and her competitiveness, her leadership as well as just her athleticism,” Wilbourn said. “She’s a once-in-a-decade type athlete.”
This time a year ago, Wilbourn had yet to officially step into his current role, serving as the interim director from July 2020 to June 2021. That didn’t stop him from achieving great things in his first season at the helm, earning ACC Women’s Outdoor Coach of the Year after leading the Blue Devils to the title.
Still, it’s clear that the program has come a long way in its first official year under Wilbourn, with landmark placements for both the men and women this past weekend in Durham. With an emphasis on teamwork and a focus on “getting points from all the event groups,” Duke’s success at ACCs is the most recent example of Wilbourn molding his program into a very well-rounded one.
Now, the Blue Devils and Wilbourn turn their attention toward the NCAA East Regional, scheduled for May 25-28 in Bloomington, Ind.
“The goal is to get through regionals and get as many kids qualified for [the NCAA Outdoor Championships] as possible and see where we can end up nationally,” Wilbourn said.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.