Chemistry propels women’s 4×400 relay to NCAA Championships

Omoye Ugiagbe’s track career at Illinois has come full circle.

As a freshman in 2006, she was on the indoor 4×400 meter relay that set the Illinois school record with a time of 3 minutes, 35.34 seconds.

Now a senior, Ugiagbe helped break her own record last weekend and will lead her squad to the NCAA Indoor Championships on Friday.

“We were barely on the list (and are now ranked) third going (into the Indoor Championships), so I’m just overwhelmed with excitement,” Ugiagbe said.

The performance was a long time coming, since this past weekend was the relay’s last chance of making it to Indoor Championships. The team had a steep hill to climb, needing to increase its position from 28th in the country to at least 12th.

After finishing in 3:35.13, a 0.21 second improvement over the previous school record, the Illini are ranked third nationally going into the championships.

Head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey cited better team chemistry as the difference-maker.

“The only reason we finally put it together is we finally had the chemistry that we had been looking for all year,” Buford-Bailey said. “Prior to that, the chemistry wasn’t there, the order wasn’t right, the belief of everybody running a certain split on their own leg wasn’t there. It just hadn’t come together.

“I think now they believe in themselves, they believe in each other.”

Ugiagbe agreed that the relay team developed more chemistry after the success.

“There’s a lot of trust going on now,” Ugiagbe said. “When we went out there, it really showed that we all worked beyond our limit and it really showed how badly we all wanted this. We’re definitely closer compared to the beginning of the year (when) everybody was new. We were still trying to get to know each other.”

Half of this year’s 4×400 meter relay is new, with freshman Ryisha Boyd and senior transfer Deserea Brown joining 4×400 relay veterans sophomore Melissa Bates and Ugiagbe – the only one of the four who has run the race at nationals.

For Brown, getting to know her teammates personally was not difficult; it was just a matter of time before the chemistry yielded results.

“It’s been pretty easy, everybody has pretty cool personalities and works well together so it hasn’t been that hard of a transition as far as getting to know the girls,” Brown said. “We knew we could do it, but we just had to put the right group together in the right order, so to finally come up with it in the last-chance meet and be third (in the NCAA). I don’t think that excitement will go away.”

Bates has every reason to be confident going into her first nationals after clocking a 52.3 split last weekend. Several days after the performance, she was still taking it all in while looking forward to nationals.

“This is my first time so I really don’t know what to think,” Bates said. “I’ll probably be nervous when I get to nationals, but right now I’m just shocked, happy, enjoying life.”

Boyd echoed those thoughts.

“For (nationals) to be here and be so close and know that I’m making it is just surreal,” Boyd said.

“It doesn’t even seem true yet, and I probably won’t realize it until afterward, but I’ve watched this meet on TV so many times. I know of these athletes, and now I am one of them.”

Boyd also noted that the teammates’ recent success has not gone to their heads, and that they must continue working hard and stay focused to do well at nationals.

“Just because we ran 3:35 this week, we can run 3:37 next week, so we’ve got to keep working at it so we can get better,” Boyd said.

Nevertheless, a No. 3 seed has boosted the team’s confidence.

“I feel like everybody has a chance to win,” Brown said. “We definitely have a chance to win, and that’s what I’m thinking. I say we shoot for first and see what happens.”

For Ugiagbe, it’s difficult to compare this year’s relay team to the one she was on as a freshman in any area other than general success.

“I don’t know how to compare it,” Ugiagbe said. “Each relay that I’ve been on has been strong on its own but (also) unique in its own way. We’re definitely strong now, and we were strong back then.”