'We'll be back': Duke women's track and field falls step short of repeat title in wild finish at ACC Indoor Championships

Sophomore Megan McGinnis took home two gold medals at the ACC Indoor Championships.
Sophomore Megan McGinnis took home two gold medals at the ACC Indoor Championships.

Sophomore Megan McGinnis ran around the curve of the track just barely ahead of Miami freshman Sanaa Hebron, running at McGinnis’ hip. Anchoring Duke’s women's 4x400m relay race, she crossed the finish line in a flash. The Roanoke, Va., native and her teammates clocked an unofficial time of 3:32.54 — fast enough to win gold in the event, fast enough to qualify for nationals and fast enough to earn Duke the handful of points it needed to clinch the conference championship. But while McGinnis crossed the finish line on time, her baton did not — and that cost Duke everything.

Over the course of three days, the Blue Devils competed in the ACC Indoor Championships at the Norton Healthcare Sports and Learning Center in Louisville, Ky. The women’s team finished in second place overall at 91 points. Virginia Tech, barely slipping by them with 93, took the top spot on the podium; it also took the title on the men’s side, making the meet an all-around celebration for the Hokies. The Duke men’s team took a heavy blow, finishing in 13th place; granted, they entered just a handful of athletes due to a slew of injuries that prevented this weekend’s meet from being a success on their end.

Despite the success of finishing second in a highly competitive conference, the baton in question remained a painful stain on the weekend’s score sheet.

“I don't think anybody thought that what happened was going to happen. We were racing, we were going for a fast time, we were going for the win,” said head coach Shawn Wilbourn. “We were the favorites. And you know, sometimes bad luck hits you, but we'll regroup and get up and try to do it outdoors.”

A year ago, the Blue Devils headed onto the track in Blacksburg, Va., to compete in the women’s 4x400m relay. They won the event, matching Virginia Tech’s score to tie for first place and a conference championship.

This time, the Blue Devils headed into day three of the championship meet poised to win a title all for themselves. When the day began, Virginia Tech stood at the top of the standings with 48 points to Duke’s 43. Hours later, the Blue Devils had closed that gap to 93-91 — and had just one event left.

“Winning an ACC Championship at this level is extremely difficult … So every point matters,” said Wilbourn.

A record-breaking quartet stepped up to the block for the 4x400m relay: Freshmen Lauren Tolbert and Julia Jackson, McGinnis and senior Halle Bieber, who combined to reset Duke’s program record in the 4x400m relay earlier this season. To win the meet, the relay team had to place three positions higher than the Hokies, who had already clocked a 3:44.86, earning them no more than a couple of points. The shot rang out, Bieber took off and the Blue Devils were in perfect form — until a fumble and a call that changed the trajectory of the entire meet.

Inches before she crossed the finish line, McGinnis, anchoring the race, dropped the baton. Hebron was just a hair behind her, so close that she made contact with the baton McGinnis carried in her right hand. But the contact, according to ACC officials, was not enough to put the fault on the Hurricanes. Duke was disqualified from the race and, as a result, lost the opportunity to win the conference championship. If the time had counted, the Blue Devils would have unequivocally won both.

Perhaps even more disconcerting than the loss of the conference championship is the lost opportunity for this record-setting team of women to compete in the upcoming NCAA Indoor Championships.

“This was the last opportunity of the season to qualify for the NCAA championships,” noted Wilbourn. “You know, that was more the goal.”

The meet as a whole was far from a failure. On the contrary, it was a three-day exhibition of Duke talent that gave every athlete on the women’s team a chance to showcase their best. For the first time in program history, the Blue Devils had a representative in every single women’s event final; they were the only team at the meet to do so.

“It shows that we're a team,” said Wilbourn. “It shows that the plan of being able to be competitive in every event is imperative. And I think we showed that yesterday.”

The Blue Devils set themselves up for success right as the first boom of a start pistol set the meet into action. Freshmen Tolbert and Dalia Frias, along with sophomores Amina Maatoug and McGinnis, have been on fire in the women’s distance medley all season, already breaking the Duke record at the beginning of February. On Thursday, they took it one step further, smashing the all-time ACC record in the event. In doing so, they also zoomed past the facility record and rewrote Duke’s fastest time, ultimately celebrating these landmark victories with a first-place finish.

“With Megan being such a strong 400-meter runner and Amina, with her strength … it's the perfect storm for a phenomenal relay team,” said assistant coach Angela Reckart, who heads up the distance side on the track.

The rest of Thursday followed as an all-around success for Duke, boasting four additional top-five finishes across the men’s and women’s events. Starring on the men’s side was graduate student and cross country captain Chris Theodore, who placed fifth in the men’s 5000m. He set the stage for a speedy Duke day in men’s distance, as the Blue Devils quickly followed up his race with a fourth-place finish in the men’s distance medley. Carter Dillon, Jackson Walker, Beck Wittstadt and James Lee clocked a collective time of 9:35.00 — the second-best in program history.

“I was just thrilled for him to be able to come through with some big team points and earn an all-ACC honor,” said Reckart of Theodore.

At the end of day one, the Duke women had just 27.5 points to Virginia Tech’s 48. To close that gap, the Blue Devils took on day two of ACCs in speedy style and turned the discrepancy into just five points.

The highlights from this three-day run of success included 11 top-five finishes from the women’s team and four from the men’s. Maatoug was crowned Women’s Track MVP and three Blue Devils — Tyler Hrbek, Julia Jackson and Isabel Wakefield — took home Second Team All-ACC honors.

Though all eyes were on McGinnis for the dropped baton, she was stellar across the weekend. The sprinter did her part in the distance medley and then followed up by taking gold in the 400-meter dash with a personal best of 52.57 seconds, smashing the Duke and facility records.

“We fought, competed hard and put ourselves in position to win the championships,” said Wilbourn. “And we would have won it, we just had the unfortunate incident at the end.”

The Blue Devils might have suffered a bit of a setback to close out an eventful weekend, but they have many a chance awaiting them still. Now, a select group of qualifiers will gear up for NCAA competition while the rest of the squad gets ready for the outdoor season.

“We’ll be back,” said Wilbourn.


Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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