Florida in the summer has it all: Beaches, sunshine, palm trees — and track facilities.
After a few weeks without competition — giving them time to wind down from their victorious performance at the ACC Outdoor Championships — the Blue Devils headed down to Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday for the NCAA East Regional competition. On the Visit Jax Track at Hodges Stadium, running with the best of the region, Duke managed to snag a total 14 qualifications for the culmination of their season: A national championship meet in Austin, Texas.
”One of our philosophies is to be competitive in as many events as possible,” said head coach Shawn Wilbourn following his team’s performance. “And so going to the NCAA championships with 10 events covered — that enables us to have opportunities to score in a lot of different places.”
Like it has all season, this gritty squad went down South to make history. The Blue Devil women proved its might two weeks ago, when it won their first outright conference championship via a collective effort by athletes on track and field alike. Now, it's looking for more than conference acclaim — Duke is seeking, and finding, achievement on a bigger stage.
“We're hoping to score enough points to be a top-20 team in the nation,” said Wilbourn, looking ahead to the upcoming gig in Texas.
The last several days have allowed the program director to develop this kind of confidence. Fourteen athletes is more than Duke has ever qualified for the national meet, and it’s a feat that comes as a result of a remarkably diverse skillset from this year’s team.
“The big thing to highlight is the number of events that we have women qualified in,” Wilbourn said. “We have every event group covered: Sprints, jumps, throws and distance.”
The first athletes on the women’s side to earn a qualification came from the field: Graduate students Dana Baker and Ilhame Tamrouti notched fourth and eighth in the javelin, respectively, to earn automatic invites to the final stage. A few hours later, a fifth-place mark in the long jump from fellow graduate athlete Isabel Wakefield demanded a third ticket to nationals, turning the Duke field duo into a threatening trio. This was all Thursday; later that same day, sophomore Megan McGinnis, freshman Lauren Tolbert and senior Halle Bieber soared through the first rounds of their running events to pass through to the quarterfinals that would take place Saturday.
And take place they did — Saturday was a momentous day for Duke. A fourth field athlete, sophomore Chinenye Agina, notched eighth in the high jump to join her teammates on the road to Austin. Then came a slew of successes, bookended by relays: McGinnis earned her second slot in nationals on a 4x100m team with sophomore Abby Geiser, senior Carly King and Bieber.
The Roanoke, Va., native took a fourth qualifier with the 4x400m relay at the end of the day, as Duke snagged third behind Florida and LSU — both of whom are ranked among the overall top 10 teams in the nation, with the Gators sitting pretty at No. 2.
“She is a budding superstar. She's one of the best in the nation,” Wilbourn said of McGinnis.
In between leading those relay teams, McGinnis took third in the 400m dash, crossing the finish line at 51.79 — just a hair behind her personal best of 51.43. Wilbourn believes that her knack for the one-lap race could put this Patrick Henry product on the podium in Austin.
McGinnis is not alone in her star power. She shares some of the spotlight with Tolbert, whose first season has been decorated to the point of storied — something the Belmont, N.C., native reassured the Blue Devil faithful with a ninth-place showing in the 800m. A quick 2:04.76 earned Tolbert her golden ticket to nationals in the company of just one other freshman among the 12 fastest finishers.
“[She]’s a true freshman who handled the pressure really well and got through,” noted Wilbourn. “We have some young kids that are elite.”
When it comes to the Duke men, though, strength seems to be consolidated amongst the older athletes. A trio of veteran Blue Devils took the lead on behalf of the men’s side, earning three invites to the big dance thanks to strong performances from graduate thrower Robbie Otal and seniors Beau Allen and Luke Jackson. The latter’s fourth-place finish in the javelin, which he launched 74.35m down the field, made him the meet’s first Blue Devil to secure a trip to Austin as well as one of the top-five best javelin throwers in program history. Otal and Allen followed his example Friday afternoon, going back-to-back in the discus and high jump, respectively, and both landing among the top 10.
There were, however, opportunities left untapped by the Blue Devil men, who had hoped to make its national championship squad a bit thicker than three. Unlucky number 13 got in the way of graduate student Tyler Hrbek and a shot at nationals — though the Northvale, N.J., native tied for the 12th spot in terms of height, his accumulated misses broke the draw in favor of Penn’s Scott Toney. This meant a huge loss for the Blue Devil whose name, in ACC competition, at least, is usually accompanied by a bold number one.
“One spot away … it was a tough break for him,” Wilbourn said.
Upsets like this — even for the best pole vaulter in the ACC — can only be expected, though, when faced with competition of this level. Duke, currently unranked nationally, faced off against many of the best 25 teams in the country — on both the men’s and women’s sides of things — and still came out of the weekend with 14 qualifying marks to its name. Indeed, this looks like an indication of what’s to come for the Blue Devils, who continue to rise steadily in national prominence.
They’ll have one last chance to see how far this momentum will take them starting June 7, at the NCAA Outdoor Championship meet in Austin.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.