It wasn’t even close.
Just like this year’s indoor conference finals, the Duke women’s squad headed into the last day of the ACC Outdoor Championship a number of points behind Virginia Tech. An hour later, it was ahead. Four hours later — and unlike last time — it had won the meet.
The Blue Devils took their last shot at a 2023 conference title on the Paul Derr Track and Field Facility Thursday through Saturday in neighboring Raleigh. The men’s side put on a valiant effort, but ultimately fell short, wrapping up the season in eighth place. The women’s team, on the other hand, did the most with its potential, setting a conference points record at 145.5 to take ACC gold a hefty 61 points ahead of the Hokies.
“We had multiple people in multiple events and they all just did an incredible job,” said head coach Shawn Wilbourn, who won the title in just his third season at the helm of the program.
Sophomore Megan McGinnis sought redemption for her infamous baton drop solo-style. In tune with her true team mindset, the Patrick Henry product stepped out of Duke’s record-breaking 4x400m lineup to let Carly King, Lauren Tolbert, Madison Mulder and Julia Jackson take a shot at a gold medal and a national qualification. She settled for her own title in the 400m dash before wrapping up the evening by celebrating with her team, all of them decked in matching hats and t-shirts announcing their new title as champions.
When the shotgun sound signaled the start of day three, the Blue Devils had already collected a handful of podium-worthy finishes. Both sides of the team had tallied enough points to sit in third place from field events alone. Multi-event graduate student Isabel Wakefield placed third in the long jump; graduate students Dana Baker and Ilhame Tamrouti were second and third, respectively, in the javelin; junior Brianna Smith worked her way to third in the heptathlon and graduate jumper Chinenye Agina did the same in the high jump at noon on Saturday.
The men’s team, for its part, was doing all it could to make up for a sub-par performance in the indoor season, boasting a first-place finish in the pole vault per a new personal best from graduate student Tyler Hrbek along with a pair of third-place marks from sophomore Maxwell Forte in the decathlon and senior Beau Allen in the high jump.
“I was very impressed with our men's team. And you know, we don't have the depth that we have on the women’s but the guys really competed hard,” said Wilbourn.
Duke’s success, in meets where important sprint races are saved for the end, has always been up to the last day’s events. For the men’s team, that meant a drop in rankings; for the women’s, there was the opposite effect.
“We knew we had to get some points on Thursday … that kind of started the ball rolling,” Wilbourn said Saturday. “We just had to go in today and execute and be solid. And we knew we'd win.”
That being said, gold status was not assured right away. After rapid performances from the rest of the women’s 4x100m relay team, sophomore Chyler Turner fell behind in the fourth leg of the race, losing Duke a precious opportunity for points in an event it had hoped to dominate. The pressure was on for sophomore Amina Maatoug, who lined up for the 1500m just a few minutes later.
“Man … right conditions, and she was feeling good. And in practice, she's looked great … so we knew that she would be able to do what she did,” said Wilbourn.
Luckily for the Blue Devil faithful, the Leiden, Netherlands, native kept her feet on pace and not only met expectations but broke them, surging out of a steady fourth place in the last 200m en route to second-place finish behind Virginia’s Margot Appleton. She snagged eight handy points and put Duke in first place for the first time all week.
Now things were moving. Wakefield and graduate student Emily Sloan snagged third and fourth place finishes in the 100m hurdles, respectively, warming up the track for the big 400m race about to kick off — and kick off it did, with McGinnis staying true to her No. 1 conference rank: In 51.43 seconds, the determination on her face broke into a grin as the Roanoke, Va., native broke not just her own personal record but also the all-time program mark, too.
“I think we’re ready to do something big today,” McGinnis told ACC Network after her win.
With a 22-point lead, the Blue Devil women stepped up to their blocks for the 100m dash. Senior Halle Bieber and sophomore Abby Geiser took over lanes four and six, matching bright pink sneakers crossing the finish line just a hundredth of a second apart from one another. Geiser snagged second in 11.34, Bieber took third at 11.35 and both times were good for personal bests.
One hour later, the same duo was made a triad by McGinnis as the three Blue Devils lined up for the women’s 200m, filling the start line with dark blue. They finished second, third and fourth: McGinnis, Bieber and Geiser. The three of them walked off the track together, smiling, tired and all with new personal bests. And to put a cherry on top of the whole shebang, McGinnis and Bieber slid their times into the second- and third-best slots in Duke history.
“It was redemption in a way, I guess,” said Wilbourn, referring to McGinnis’ performance Saturday and its contrast with the result of the indoor championship meet.
“But, you know, we didn't talk a lot about it. The team rallied behind her and it did focus her and she was on a mission; and she came in and she executed and looked great. Really excited to see her as we move on towards NCAAs now.”
The end of this meet was not, exactly, the fairy-tale finish fans had hoped it would be. Duke did not win the 4x400m race: Miami took it again, just like the indoor conference meet, and the Blue Devils fell to second place even with a valiant anchoring sprint from Jackson.
But the truth of the story is really much prettier than a fairy tale. Rather than scraping by to a last-minute victory, Duke performed at its best all across the board, three days in a row. Maybe its loss back in February fueled the narrative; maybe it is just that good. Either way, the Blue Devils were that good together — vigilantly fighting the idea that track is an individual sport.
“It just solidifies that culture that we're trying to foster — the philosophy of being a full team and being competitive in every event — spreading our talent out and not emphasizing one event area over another. It's paying off,” Wilbourn said.
This season is not over. Pending official qualifications, a slew of Duke athletes will look to ride the wave of their successes to Jacksonville, Fla., on May 24 for the NCAA East Regional.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.