Women’s track shines at NCAA regional

LaNeisha Waller leaps over the final hurdle of the 60 meter hurdles during the Big Ten Championships at the Armory, Sunday, February 25, 2007. Wes Anderson

LaNeisha Waller leaps over the final hurdle of the 60 meter hurdles during the Big Ten Championships at the Armory, Sunday, February 25, 2007. Wes Anderson

By Meghan Montemurro

What a way to go out.

In his 23rd and final season as the head coach of the women’s track and field team, Gary Winckler witnessed one of Illinois’ best NCAA Regional Championship performances. The Illini boasted impressive results, both as a team and individually. Illinois finished fifth overall with 40 points, the best finish in school history, and was only one point behind fourth-place finisher and Big Ten foe Michigan.

“(The fifth-place finish) was pretty good for us with a young team,” Winckler said. “We were in one of the toughest regionals.”

Winckler and the Illini have more than just a solid team finish to hang their cleats on. At least four Illini will be heading to Des Moines, Iowa, for the NCAA Championships, held June 11-14, with the potential for a total of six representatives.

Youth reigned supreme for Illinois, led by freshmen Danelle Woods and Chantelle Groenewoud. Woods and Groenewoud finished first and second, respectively, in the 3,000-meter steeplechase final with Woods taking the title in a time of 10 minutes, 32.83 seconds. Needless to say, Winckler was impressed by his freshmen duo.

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“For two freshmen to go one, two in the steeplechase is good, outstanding in fact,” Winckler said.

Going into the event, Woods was ranked first in the region, which she demonstrated by leading for most of the race.

“I was just trying to go out there and compete and get to nationals,” Woods said in a press release. “Once I broke off from the pack, I felt comfortable and relaxed and got to control the race. I’m really proud of Chantelle finishing second. It will be great to have her to compete with at NCAAs.”

Groenewoud qualified for the NCAA Championships after finishing strong, eking out her second-place finish three one-hundredths of a second ahead of Michigan State’s Sarah Price, who came in third.

Sophomore Angela Bizzarri, though an underclassman, will have experience when competing at the NCAA Championships. The Mason, Ohio, native won the 5,000 meter race Friday night and returns to the national stage after competing in the NCAA Championships in the 1,500 meter last season.

“(Bizzarri) probably could have gone in either event this year,” Winckler said of Bizzarri’s decision to focus on the 5,000. Winckler added that Bizzarri thought the regional race went well and is excited about heading back to the NCAA Championships.

After competing in the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships last season, senior LaNeisha Waller has the opportunity to compete one final time while donning the Orange and Blue. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native returns to her home state to get another shot at the country’s best. Waller placed fifth in the 100-meter hurdles, clocking in at 12.94 seconds, a personal best.

With the top five individuals and top three relays in every event automatically qualifying for the NCAA Championships, senior Briana Cunningham and sophomore Aja Evans have their future out of their hands as they wait to see if they receive at-large bids. Both finished sixth in their events. In the 400-meter hurdles final, Cunningham finished in a time of 58.20 seconds. Her personal best of 57.90 from the preliminaries Friday, however, may be good enough to qualify. In the shot put, Evans finished with a distance of 53 feet, 4 1/2 inches. Winckler believes Evans is all but a lock to be selected, holding the eighth best distance in the nation.

On the men’s side, the Illini will have two athletes representing the Orange and Blue at the NCAA Championships. Juniors Gakologelwang Masheto and Andrew Zollner are guaranteed a trip to the state of Iowa after finishing in the top five in the 400 meter and pole vault.

“I’m very pleased with how the meet turned out,” head coach Wayne Angel said in a press release. “I was hoping the mile relay could sneak in there too, but we did well under the circumstances. It is fantastic that Zollner is going to nationals in the pole vault again, and Masheto is starting to get his stride back in the 400m. I’m also happy with our team finish. I know our athletes going to NCAAs will represent the University of Illinois well.”

Masheto finished fourth in a season-best 46.46 seconds and will be heading back to the NCAAs for the second consecutive season. He finished fourth last season to earn All-American honors.

Zollner gave fans excitement and a close finish in the pole vault final. The Sparta, Ill., native advanced after winning a jump-off against Purdue’s Ben Pax. After both missed jumps at 17 feet 5, 17 feet 3 and 17 feet 1, Zollner cleared 16 feet 11 and took sole possession of fifth place after Pax was unable to clear the height, breaking the tie. It will be Zollner’s second straight trip to the NCAA Championships as well.