Senior speedsters hope to run past field of women’s track powerhouses

By Kevin Olsen

The Illinois women’s track and field team will face a stiff test Saturday in the Illinois Women’s Invitational. The young squad will face Texas, UCLA and Miami (Fla.) in a quad meet at the Armory.

It will be just the second meet of the year following last week’s impressive performance at the Indiana Open in Bloomington, Ind., but it will come against perennial powerhouses from around the country.

“This is probably the best field to come to Illinois in over 10 years,” said head coach Gary Winckler about the competition his young team will face. “I think we’re really going to compete. Then, we will evaluate our performance from there. It’s going to be a day-by-day, week-by-week process.”

Winckler will have to rely on seniors such as sprinters Tiara Armstrong and LaNeisha Waller to anchor the Illini. Armstrong is coming off a first-place finish at the Indiana Open in the 60 meters with a time of 7.56 seconds, just missing her career best of 7.48.

Junior Omoye Ugiagbe finished second behind Armstrong with a time of 7.70 and is expected to be a top performer throughout the season for the Illini. Armstrong and Ugiagbe also anchored the 4×400 meter relay that finished second in Indiana along with Briana Cunningham and Melissa Bates.

Armstrong said it was a surprising start for her and was the best opening meet of her career. Besides vying for individual Big Ten championships, Armstrong will also be counted on to lead a young, inexperienced team after highly decorated seniors Yvonne Mensah and Camile and Carlene Robinson graduated. Armstrong said she has been trying to encourage the younger athletes and help them gain confidence to eventually make a mark for themselves on the team.

“I think it’s going to be very useful,” said Armstrong about the upcoming Invitational. “We should run good times, especially with the competition we will face. I think it can be an advantage for us.”

Freshman Jessica Penney will be making her first start for the Illini in the long jump. Winckler said she will provide depth for an already solid group of field athletes.

“We are strong at the long jump, the shot put and our pole vaulters are all returning this year,” said Winckler. “I think we’re a pretty well-rounded team this year, but we probably lack some experience.”

Winckler, however, will not run his long distance runners that participated in cross country, including two-time cross country All-American Angela Bizzarri. Instead Wrinkler will rely on other runners to carry the load this weekend. He expects to start some of the cross country runners next Saturday in Champaign at the Carle/Health Alliance Invitational.

Winckler has seen a lot of progress from his young group so far and even feels his team is stronger in some areas than last year’s Big Ten Outdoor Championship team. But Wrinkler acknowledged the Illini are weaker in areas as well, especially the 600- and 800-meter events where he will be trying to develop young talent.

Illinois is also not very deep in the high jump and triple jump, but Winckler believes the Illini will start getting some help from freshmen in the triple jump. “Everyone is in shape now,” said Armstrong about the younger athletes adapting to the collegiate level. “It’s really coming together now. It was a little shaky in the beginning, but they are more focused now than they were.”