The Blue Devils are back on the track, and their start to the 2024 season might just be their best yet.
Saturday, Duke revamped the indoor track season at the JDL Mondo College Invitational meet in Winston-Salem, N.C., with nine first-place finishes and a whole slew of record book rewrites. The women’s team excelled in sprints while the men’s team exhibited unprecedented strength on the field, combining for a performance that can only mean good things for head coach Shawn Wilbourn’s team in the months to come.
“Great meet yesterday, just knocking the rust off,” Wilbourn told The Chronicle Sunday morning.
Top performances on the women’s side of things came on the heels of reigning Blue Devil champions: Efforts were headlined by graduate student Halle Bieber and senior Brianna Smith, both of whom played significant roles in last year’s outdoor track and field ACC title. The former snagged the top spot in the 60m dash while the latter took first in both the 60m hurdles and the high jump. Bieber’s 7.41-second time in the 60m dash fell, by the skin of her teeth, behind her personal record and Duke’s program best, which sits at a tantalizing 7.40 seconds. Sophomore Julia Jackson, who finished second behind Bieber, clocked 7.51 seconds to slot herself tied for No. 5 in program history, too.
Smith’s double-win day came from two similarly top-tier performances, her 8.80-second 60m hurdle time coming in less than a tenth of a second behind her personal best of 8.71. Both Blue Devils, however, clocked those personal records at the indoor conference championship last year, which Louisville hosted in late February with much higher stakes. To finish so close to their personal bests at an unscored meet less than a week into the second semester confirms that this Duke team is ready to pick up right where it left off in 2023 — on top of the podium.
“Brianna looks great. That's the best she's ever opened up, by far. And she got two wins out of it,” Wilbourn said. “And then Halle Bieber running a hundredth off of her personal best to open up was a very impressive performance by her.”
This wasn’t a case of single-player stardom, either. Smith may have earned two top spots by herself, but her toughest competitor on the high jump was her own teammate, Addie Renner, a sophomore who jumped 1.67m, solidly ahead of Wake Forest’s third-place finisher. Duke success stretched into various other field events, too, featuring wins by junior Paige Sommers in the pole vault, graduate student Tia Rozario in the triple jump and graduate student MaKayla Mason in the shot put. Mason, a transfer from Washington, kicked off her Blue Devil career by slotting her name at No. 4 in the program record book. Rozario, new to Duke from Princeton, got her name in the third spot for triple jump records.
“This group is the most confident and probably performed at the highest level for their very first meet ever than we've had,” Wilbourn shared.
It is looking like a new era for the men’s team, which has always fallen in the shadow of the title-holding Blue Devil women. Duke welcomed Christian Johnson to Durham from Los Angeles this year, and the Southern California grad has already earned his stripes as a Blue Devil. Saturday, he stole first in the weight throw in the meet and in the Duke record book: His 20.76m-throw established itself as first in program history by more than a meter. But he didn’t win by that much in Winston Salem thanks to his new teammates, Aimar Palma Simo and Christian Toro, who snagged respective second- and third-place finishes in the event and also beat out standing program records to take the same spots in Duke history. Simo joins Johnson as a graduate transfer — from Arkansas State — while Toro is completely new to the college scene, just starting out his freshman season.
“Our men's team is going to be much improved… especially our throwers, we have a fabulous group of throwers,” Wilbourn said.
Ezra Mellinger, a graduate student recently recovered from injuries that kept him off the track last spring, won the long jump and notched a meet victory and second-place program record with a 6.74-second finish in the men’s 60m race.
The JDL Mondo Invitational acts more as “a high intensity practice” than a real meet, per Wilbourn — it features just one ACC opponent in Wake Forest and not many nationally competitive teams. Still, Duke’s success on Saturday was clearly not just about relativity. Sweeping program records this early in the season means the usual rust that develops in the offseason isn’t really there, and that means the Blue Devils can spend less time getting used to competition and more time amping up their competitiveness.
“It was more just to wear the uniform, to get in a different facility,” Wilbourn said. “It’s part of the preparation as we look towards our championship season.”
Standards are high, coming into 2024. The women’s team has a title to hold onto from the outdoor season and a technicality to avenge on behalf of last year’s indoor title. The men, on the other hand, apparently have finally found the necessary parts to climb the ranks of the conference. Now they have to do the climbing.
Duke will face tougher competition at its next meets, as half the squad heads to the Hokie Invitational in Blacksburg, Va., and the others drive just down the road to the Dick Taylor Carolina Classic in Chapel Hill next weekend.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.