Illini women’s track and field set to put finishing touches on season

After losing several key members of last year’s team due to graduation, transfers and medical redshirts, the Illinois women’s track team battled against adversity and made the most of their season.

The focus was on who’s here, not who isn’t, and thinking about what you can do to make yourself and the team better. That’s a message head coach Ron Garner has preached to his athletes all season.

“Throughout the course of a season, it’s normal to have ups and downs,” Garner said. “We’ve had our fair share, with people redshirting and some other things happening. Scoring points have not been our priority, right now making sure everyone is working on their individual goals and competing to the best of their ability is our main focus.”

Though the Illini have not won many meets this year, nor cracked the national team rankings, the team has received stellar individual performances from several athletes on a consistent basis.

Senior sprinter Jesica Ejesieme has been a constant point-scorer for the Orange and Blue throughout both the indoor and outdoor seasons. During the indoor season, she was all-Big Ten, placing fourth in the 60-meter hurdles at Big Ten Championships. After several event titles and top-three finishes this outdoor season, Ejesieme will be looking to cap off her Illini career the right way. She ranks third-best in both the 100 and 400 meter hurdles going into conference championships.

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    “With Big Tens around the corner, it’s time for us to piece together what we’ve been working on all season,” Ejesieme said.

    Last year, the Illini finished second at Big Ten Outdoor Championships, just behind the overall team winner Penn State. This was in addition to the overall team championship the Illini grabbed after winning the indoor championship meet.

    The Illini were unable to repeat as indoor champions this year and most likely will not be at the top of the Big Ten standings when the outdoor championship rolls around. However, several members of the team are poised for all-conference finishes.

    Ahlivia Spencer is another athlete who hopes to end her Illini career in style. Spencer, a senior, has been a consistent force for the Orange and Blue. After winning the 800 meters at Big Ten indoors, Spencer will have a chance to defend her title at the outdoor meet. She currently ranks fifth in conference.

    In addition to Ejesieme and Spencer, redshirt sophomore Alyssa Schneider has led the scoring attack for the Illini this year in events on the track. Schneider placed eight in the 5,000 meters at indoor conference championships. She will be looking to improve upon this performance and potentially qualify for nationals. Schneider ranks in the top-10 in conference in both the 1,500 and 5,000 meters.

    In field events, the team has seen news stars born. 

    Freshman high jumper Kandie Bloch-Jones has burst onto the scene.

    Bloch-Jones had a successful indoor campaign in which she won a conference title and earned second-team All-American honors. Bloch-Jones, who already holds the fourth-best performance in school history, will head into outdoor championships ranked second in the Big Ten.

    In addition to Bloch-Jones, throwers Jazjuan Wallace-Sipp and Mariah Smith have carried the scoring burden for the Illini in field events. Both have performed well this outdoor season and rank in the top five in program history in the discus. Wallace-Sipp and Smith figure to battle each other for a conference title as they will go into Big Tens as the first and second seed, respectively.

    Though the overall team talent is down from a year ago, the Illini have maximized individual potential and exceeded expectations.

    “It’s important we focus on ourselves and the preparation we take going into the meet,” Ejesieme said. “We need to trust the work we put in at practice, and just go out there and put in our best efforts.”

    Mubarak can be reached [email protected] and @justmubar.