'We’ve got to get better': Despite standouts, ACC Indoor Championships deliver mixed bag for Duke

Amina Maatoug (middle) stands on the podium after finishing first in the women's mile at the ACC Championships.
Amina Maatoug (middle) stands on the podium after finishing first in the women's mile at the ACC Championships.

Up in Boston for the ACC Championships this weekend, Duke saw plenty of success, but it wasn’t enough for its lofty standards. The women’s team fell short of the win they seeked to repeat after last year’s outdoor ACC trophy, placing fourth instead with 64 points. The men’s team was farther back, finishing in ninth place with a total of 27 points. 

Still, the Blue Devils had several valiant efforts, headlined by two newly crowned ACC champions: graduate student Christian Johnson and junior Amina Maatoug. Over three days of competition, the Blue Devils finished on the podium in seven events and amassed a total of 14 All-ACC recognitions. 

“Christian Johnson winning the gold really kind of kicked us off on Thursday,” head coach Shawn Wilbourn said after the meet. 

Capping off a stellar season of breaking and re-breaking school records, Johnson came to perform when it mattered most. On his third attempt of the day, Johnson sent his weight spinning to 21.73m (71-3.50 feet) to clinch first place and a spot on the All-ACC First Team, edging out the runner-up by less than an inch. With him in training and competition, fellow graduate thrower Aimar Palma Simo also brought the heat, securing fifth place on his fifth throw attempt of 21.06m (69-1.75 feet) to earn All-ACC Second Team recognition. Scoring in his first-ever ACC Championship, freshman Christian Toro rounded out the men’s weight throw with a promising seventh-place finish.

But the first day wasn’t without its strong showings from the Duke women. 

With a spin and a shout, senior Moorea Mitchell threw her weight all the way to 20.81m (68-3.25 feet), good for a bronze medal in the and a new school record in the women’s weight throw, just two weeks after she set the previous one. By no means less impressive, senior Brianna Smith came through with a podium finish of her own in the pentathlon.

“Brianna Smith, what she did in the pentathlon and then to come back 45 minutes and high jump and be all conference on the high jump — that was impressive,” Wilbourn said.

Competing in the 60m hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump and 800m, Smith had quite the busy day. Still, like all multi-athletes must, she stayed focused, registering three season bests and two personal bests enroute to a third-place finish. Forty-five minutes later, fresh from her pentathlon 800m race, Smith returned to the field, beating her season best of 1.77m (5-9 3⁄4 feet) with a 1.79m (5-10.50) leap in the high jump to score more team points and stack on her second All-ACC honor of the meet. 

After a day full of prelims, the Blue Devils entered Saturday with a slate full of final qualifiers and a fire lit under them.

Lucky for Duke, Maatoug always brings her A-game. Heading into the final with the fastest prelim time, Maatoug couldn’t help but deliver, opening the day with a win in the women’s mile and All-ACC First Team honors. With her blistering time of 4:38.16, Maatoug became just the second Duke woman ever to claim gold in the event in an Indoor ACC Championship, following in the footsteps of Olympian Shannon Rowbury 17 years ago. 

After Maatoug got things started, graduate student Ezra Mellinger locked in for the Blue Devils, not only improving his school record in the 200m, but also making history as the first of any Duke man to break 21 seconds in the indoor event. After grabbing the bronze with his time of 20.97 seconds, Mellinger doubled down, first with a sixth-place finish in the 60m sprint to garner All-ACC Second Team honors and again with a seventh-place finish in the long jump, single-handedly capturing 11 of the Duke men’s 27 points. 

“To score in three events, he would be our men’s MVP of the meet,” Wilbourn said. “He was our workhorse.”

In the women’s sprints, fellow graduate student Halle Bieber racked up hardware of her own. After demolishing a loop of the short track in a season’s best 23.30, good for silver and All-ACC First Team honors, Bieber joined her teammates in the final — and most riveting — event of the entire meet: the 4x400m relay. The relay squad of Bieber, sophomores Julia Jackson and Lauren Tolbert and graduate student Tina Martin, raced their way to a second place finish behind Miami in a time of 3:34.15. While it wasn’t the podium-topper they wanted, it was a commendable finish nonetheless, especially without junior 400m star Megan McGinnis in the lineup.

The Blue Devils rounded off the meet with several All-ACC Second Team performances. On the field, graduate triple jumper Tia Rozario and junior pole vaulter Paige Sommers each leapt to fifth-place finishes. Ahead of the 4x400m relay, Tolbert clocked a season’s best of 52.89 seconds to finish fourth in the 400m, with Jackson right behind her in fifth at 53.09 seconds. 

Despite Duke placing off the team leaderboards, Wilbourn is future-oriented. As the Blue Devils look to send a few athletes — Maatoug, Smith and senior MaKayla Mason — back to Boston in two weeks for the Indoor NCAA Championships, Wilbourn is just excited to see what they can do. 

“You have Olympians, you have world-record holders competing … The Indoor NCAA Championships is the toughest meet in the world to qualify for,” Wilbourn said. “I can't wait to see them compete in that environment.”


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