Track prepares for indoor nationals

By Kevin Olsen

At the beginning of the season, head coach Gary Winckler said he had a young and inexperienced team.

Now Winckler’s women’s track and field team can make huge strides in Fayetteville, Ark., at the NCAA Indoor Nationals. The Illini are sending five athletes, including three underclassmen.

Sophomore Aja Evans will compete in the shot put and join the distance medley relay team of Danelle Woods, Omoye Ugiagbe, Angela Bizzarri and Rachel Hernandez for a chance to earn All-American status.

“My goals for this weekend are the same as every other meet,” Evans said. “I don’t want to overthink anything and just work on the things I do at practice and if I execute, it should be a good outcome.”

Evans comes into nationals ranked 12th in the shot put with a school record mark of 54 feet 8 1/4 inches. She is the only competitor in the event from the Big Ten.

“To get my strongest mark, I need to stay focused with what I can do and not let the competition discourage me, and I should be able to get a good mark,” Evans said.

The distance medley relay team will arrive at the NCAA Indoor Nationals with the fifth-best time in the country. Its members ran a time of 11 minutes and 9.09 seconds last weekend at Notre Dame to put themselves in this position.

“When there’s a championship-type setting, time really is out the window,” distance coach Jeremy Rasmussen said about running on a different style of track. “It’s all about competing against the other people in the race, so that is our main focus.”

Woods will lead off the relay, running the 1,200 meters. Ugiagbe will follow with 400 meters and Hernandez in the 800 meters. Bizzarri will anchor the team in the 1,600 meters.

“I know when I go out there I’m going to give it all I’ve got, and I have three other girls behind me that are going to do the same thing,” Hernandez said. “As long as we keep a level head, stay focused and go out and run like we do every day then we’re going to be fine.”

This will mark the first appearance for Hernandez and Woods in a track and field NCAA Championships. Hernandez is the only senior competing at nationals and brings her veteran leadership to a team featuring a freshman (Woods) and a sophomore (Bizzarri).

“Our team is very dedicated to what we do, and we are very focused on the goals we set for ourselves,” Hernandez said. “This team in particular doesn’t need a lot of leadership or direction. When everyone’s on the track, they don’t want to let their teammates down, and they run 100 percent every time they’re on the track.”

The distance medley relay will be the last event on Friday night and is scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m. The shot put will start at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“Going in with the fifth seeded time doesn’t really mean a whole lot because you have to be able to show up and race to your ability,” Rasmussen said. “It’s all about the preparation and the focus you have going into the race. I think if they are able to do what they do every day, then they will be able to come out All-Americans.”