Jacksonville trip ends with three first-place finishes for Illini

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Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Graduate student Jonathan Wells leaps into a pit of sand while competing in the long jump on a sunny day. Wells won two of Illinois’ three first-place finishes at the Big Ten North Florida Invitational in Jacksonville, Florida this weekend.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

Meals were delivered to rooms, small groups of athletes could meet outside for a walk and they only left the hotel for practice. Combined with chilly and windy weather, Mike Turk’s track & field program didn’t have a typical trip to sunny Florida, as it struggled to gain traction against conference foes in the Big Ten North Florida Invitational in Jacksonville, Florida.

“The level of competition was outstanding, and I thought we competed very well,” Turk said. “I’m disappointed with some of the marks on paper because of the weather.”

While some Illini secured personal records, after two days of competition, Illinois walked away with only three first-place finishes in their out-of-state meet.

Jonathan Wells stole the show for the Illini, as he secured two of Illinois’ three first-place finishes. Wells, a jumper, showed his versatility this weekend, securing two individuals first-place titles in the long jump and high jump, holding off his opponents by just tenths of a meter.

On the women’s side, freshman runner Olivia Howell carried the Illini, with the Solon, Ohio native taking home first place in the 800-meter run. Howell, who won the Big Ten Championship for the mile, held off fellow freshman Bailey Hertenstein of Indiana by 0:00.45 seconds.

While he didn’t secure a top-three finish, freshman Robert Williams did enough to gain Turk’s approval. Battling in less-than-ideal conditions, the freshman competed well against a trio of upperclassmen, finishing only two-hundredths of a second away from a third-place finish.

“The wind had an impact on a lot of our performances,” Turk said. “It says a lot of how he performs with the conditions.”

Moral victories weren’t enough for Turk, however, as he believes the team needs to clean up fundamental areas of team events.

“We still need to clean up our sprint relay handoffs,” Turk said. “We aren’t clicking yet. I think that’s just something that needs more repetition. With the track under construction, we haven’t been able to work on it as much.”

In the five-team events, the Illini placement ranged from second to sixth place, with the women’s 4×800-meter relay coming within nine seconds of the top prize. While the sixth-place finish by the women’s 4×400 meter relay wasn’t the desired outcome, the result can be misleading; the Illini only finished three seconds away from first place.

With only three first-place finishes, the Jacksonville trip wasn’t a banner day for the program. However, a big victory came away from the track, as family members of the team were able to travel down to Florida to watch their kids, though they had to be reminded about the “new normal” that comes with going to sporting events.

“We had to constantly remind them of our protocols, which makes it very tough,” Turk said. “But they’ve been so respectful and understanding. It’s very, very difficult.”

Illinois is back in action next Friday, as they will travel to Bloomington, Indiana for the second Big Ten Invitational held this season.

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