Trip to nationals filled with thrills and heartbreak for Illini track teams

It was a week of ups and downs in Des Moines for the Illinois men’s and women’s track teams. Records and hearts alike were broken as the track teams competed in nationals.

On the men’s side, Andrew Riley stole headlines for the last time in his collegiate career. Running in the 100-meter dash, Riley came away with the gold, running a 10.28. The win prompted some news media outlets to describe it as an upset.

Head coach Mike Turk disagreed, saying that in the 100m dash, Riley was “the best runner in the NCAA.”

Going into the 110m hurdles, an event Riley said before Nationals is his best, he had a chance to be the first person to win both the 100m and 110m hurdles in the same year. With a final time of 13.53, Riley won the hurdles Saturday, which earned a spot not only in the record books, but also in SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.

Ashley Spencer was a star for the Illini this week as well.

Spencer had aspirations of winning the gold, but if she couldn’t win, then she wanted to at least get a time of 50 seconds or under. She ended up meeting both goals.

“It’s always good when you accomplish goals, but when you accomplish all your goals in one sitting, it makes it that much better,” Spencer said. “And I knew I would have to run — looking at the girls who qualified and how fast they ran in the past — I knew I would have to run 50-point to win.”

The win made her the first Big Ten runner to win the 400m dash on the women’s side of things.

The NCAAs also brought its share of downs for the Illini, though.

Both relay teams headed to Des Moines with high aspirations. The women’s 4×400 team just came off breaking a school record and had thoughts of actually beating that new record on the biggest stage of the year.

After qualifying for the semifinals, the women went into the finals, as head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said, “pumped.”

That is when things started to go a little downhill.

As the Illini were boarding the bus for the hotel after competing Thursday, someone read on Twitter that the relay team had been disqualified due to a lane violation and Florida would advance in their place, said Jesica Ejesleme. It was reported that senior Ashley Kelly had stepped on the line during her portion of the race.

“(Kelly) didn’t want to believe that it was true, and I didn’t want it to be true,” Spencer said. “I wanted all of my seniors to be All-Americans and re-break the school record even more than what we’ve done. I really felt sorry for my seniors because I knew we have all worked so hard to get to this point. And I believe the last time a 4×400 went to the NCAA finals was 1994, and that’s history that got snatched away from us.”

After finding out about the disqualification, Buford-Bailey had asked to see the tape but was not allowed.

“That was the biggest bummer of the entire weekend,” she said. “We had three seniors on that team, and those girls worked hard for four years to come here. And they ran their hearts out in the preliminaries to break the school record by almost a second. And then to be disqualified is heartbreaking.”

For the men, in order to crack the top ten nationally, a win in the relay would be huge. They were also haunted by a critical mishap.

In the 4×100 relay, a sloppy handoff cost the team in the finals.

“They’re devastated. That is something they have had their sights on all year,” Turk said. “You can go back to the indoor season. I remember when we finished an indoor meet, and we were talking about ‘Hey, we can win that relay this year. Let’s go back and relay this year.’ That is something they have had their sights set on for a long time. You get one shot at it, and we missed.”