Duke’s outdoor season kicks off in style with a St. Patrick’s Day-themed meet scheduled for Thursday through Saturday. Luck might be just what this team needs after months of mishaps and injuries that ultimately culminated in an indoor season that ended on a down note.
Let’s be clear: The Blue Devils are not short on speed. Rookie talent has defined Duke all year, with names like Amina Maatoug and Lauren Tolbert sitting atop the ACC while smashing school records left and right. But fortune has not backed up the Blue Devils: At the ACC Indoor Championships, the women missed out on a conference title because of a contested disqualification while the men barely entered the race due to a slew of poorly timed injuries. At the beginning of the indoor season, head coach Shawn Wilbourn wanted to see his women’s team win the conference and the men’s team place in the top five. Duke fell short of both goals. Now, the Blue Devils are looking for redemption — and the outdoor season is offering it.
“We're a better outdoor team,” said Wilbourn after NCAA Indoor Championships. “So we're excited to go back to ACCs and hopefully finish the job this time.”
Last year’s squad was lucky enough to host the ACC championships at home. Duke fared well, but left room for improvement: The women’s team took second while the men landed sixth.
Things have changed for Duke in the last year, though. While then-freshman Megan McGinnis took fifth in the women’s 400m at ACCs last season, her most recent 400m split — 51.56 seconds in the distance medley relay at nationals — is faster than the Miami time that won the race. Similarly, with Tolbert added to the mix, Duke has gained an entry into the women’s 800m — something it did not have a year ago.
“We expect them to improve on the indoor season and just keep it rolling as we transition,” Wilbourn said.
Wilbourn is stalwart in his belief that the outdoor season is where the Blue Devils shine. It is also, for this third-year coach, the season that matters most.
“Feel that we had a great indoor season but we feel that the outdoor season is where we're at our best and looking forward to starting that campaign,” he said. -Sophie Levenson
Athletes to watch: Megan McGinnis, Amina Maatough, Nick Dahl
McGinnis is going to take the outdoor season by storm. The Roanoke, Va., notably redefined Duke’s 400m program record in 52.57 seconds at the ACC Indoor Championships in February. The Patrick Henry High School product proved in the conference championships that she is fastest in the 400 — so fast, in fact, that she anchored three of her other teammates in what would have been a national-qualifying time if a dropped baton had not gotten in the way.
“The team's rallied behind her,” said Wilbourn. “And it's definitely motivated her and I'm really excited to see her run outdoors.”
Taking point on the distance end of things will be Maatoug, who enters the outdoor season draped in gold. Along with McGinnis, the Leiden, Netherlands native took first in the ACC for the women’s distance medley relay and shattered the conference record in the event. She quickly followed that up by clinching a spot on the All-America first team for her performance in the mile. But Maatoug did not reach her full potential in NCAAs, running nowhere near her personal best in either the mile or the 3000m; like McGinnis, then, she has something to motivate her through the spring.
“I told her to keep her head up,” said Wilbourn after Maatoug’s falter at nationals. “Big things are ahead and she'll learn from this and the future's bright for her.”
The men’s side of the team is looking for some power, and they might find just that in graduate distance runner Nick Dahl, who aged out of indoor eligibility but is back for one final run in the outdoor season.
“Nick Dahl … we're expecting big things from him. He was All-American last year indoors in the mile and [we’re] excited to see him compete in the outdoor season,” said Wilbourn.
The Philadelphian holds the Duke program record in the mile with a time of 3:55.89. He also boasts the second-fastest program time in the men’s 1500m at 3:39.10 — a promising prospect for this team in the outdoor season. -Levenson
Most anticipated meet: Penn Relays, April 27-29
While the Duke Invitational will be a great opportunity for Blue Devil athletes to showcase their talent, the Penn Relays will be the preeminent meet for the team. One of the most historic and largest track and field events in the country, the Penn Relays make for a meet where both high school and collegiate athletes can showcase their abilities on the ultimate stage.
For the Duke women, this meet will provide the platform they need to prove themselves as a top program. This past indoor season, the Blue Devil women broke school records in nine different events, including the 4x400 meter relay and the distance medley relay, where they ran the fastest time in the ACC this year at 10:49.87. Expect Tolbert, McGinnis and others to produce in Philadelphia. -Matthew Brathwaite
The women’s team came within reach of winning the last ACC indoor and outdoor championships, so there’s no reason to think that the Blue Devils can’t win their second outdoor title in three seasons. With a strong all-around team, especially in sprints, the Blue Devils are firmly in ACC championship contention and may even make noise at the NCAA level.
On the flip side, the men’s team can utilize its status as an underdog in the ACC to its advantage. Duke can play up to its strengths in distance, especially through graduate student Chris Theodore, to make strides in the outdoor season. If the men’s team can make improvements across the board, it may improve to reach the middle of the pack in the conference. -Tyler Walley
Two close runner-up finishes in back-to-back ACC championships can take a toll on a team’s morale, and that may ring true for the women’s outdoor squad. Maybe a revenge tour for the Blue Devils isn’t written in the stars, and the team regresses to the upper-third of the ACC as opposed to a top-two team in the conference. The caveat to Duke’s floor is the high amount of talent on the team, which prevents the Blue Devils from regressing too much.
The men’s team’s indoor season essentially served as its floor for the outdoor season. If Duke gets muscled out of scoring points, it could potentially finish at the bottom of the conference. However, just by sheer regression to the mean, Duke is unlikely to place this low in the ACC. -Walley
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.