UI sprinter will have to be at her best to repeat in 400 meters at NCAA meet.
EUGENE, Ore. — Ashley Spencer has yet to run head-to-head this year against the NCAA’s reigning 400-meter indoor champion.
That should change this week, when the Illinois sophomore goes after her second national collegiate title in the outdoor 400.
In Spencer’s way is Georgia freshman Shaunae Miller, who’s on a quest of her own: to sweep 2013 NCAA titles in the signature event of both athletes.
“This is going to be the first time to see (Spencer) really battle it out (with Miller), hopefully on the final day,” Illini coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said.
In March, Spencer and Miller each advanced to the final of the NCAA indoor 400. However, that final was contested in two four-runner sections, and they ran in separate races.
Miller, a 2012 Olympian for her native Bahamas, won her section final and posted the fastest overall time (50.88 seconds) to capture the title. Spencer won her section final, too, and reset her own school record, but her clocking (51.27) was third fastest behind Miller and runner-up Regina George of Arkansas.
With that outcome serving as a captivating backdrop, Spencer and Miller are poised to square off directly Friday for the NCAA’s 400 outdoor crown — assuming, of course, that each can safely (and separately) navigate through tonight’s semifinal heats.
“All (the indoor result) did was it just made this event more interesting and intriguing,” Buford-Bailey said.
Not that this is necessarily a two-runner argument. George figures to have a say in the outcome, and the field includes a third former NCAA champ in the 400. Kansas junior Diamond Dixon was the 2012 indoor national winner, the same year she earned an Olympic gold medal for the United States by running a leg in the semifinals of the 1,600 relay at London.
“It’s going to be a great event,” said Buford-Bailey, a three-time Olympian. “It’s very high quality, and it has been the last couple of years. Just in America alone, it’s always one of the better events on the women’s and the men’s side. The USA seems to produce pretty good quarter-milers.”
While Spencer and Miller have not run against each other in a collegiate meet, they do have a competitive history on one of the sport’s biggest stages. Last July, each advanced to the 400 finals at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain. In that race, Spencer ran what remains the fastest 400 time of her life — 50.50 seconds — to capture the title. Meanwhile, Miller placed fourth in 51.78.
Now, their paths are expected to cross again with an NCAA outdoor crown at stake. Spencer enters with the fastest qualifying time — a school-record 50.88 that the three-time All-American ran at the NCAA West Prelims last month at Austin, Texas. Miller’s 51.72 ranks as the No. 3 qualifying time.
Spencer also enters with the memory of finishing behind Miller — and George — the last time she laced up her spikes for an NCAA Championships.
“It’s a little bit of a motivation,” Buford-Bailey said. “I’m sure she’s got something she wants to prove, but I don’t think she got too wrapped up in it.
“She knows what her specialty is; it’s not indoor running.”
In the running
The top five seeds in the women’s 400 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships:
NAME SCHOOL TIME
1. Ashley Spencer Illinois 50.88
2. Regina George Arkansas 51.00
3. Shaunae Miller Georgia 51.72
4. Lenora Guion-Firmin Md.-Eastern Shore 51.97
5. Jody-Ann Muir Mississippi State 52.02
A schedule of events involving Illini entrants in the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Eugene, Ore.:
6:15 p.m. — Men’s 400 relay semifinal: Julian Smith, Brandon Stryganek, Stephon Pamilton, DJ Zahn
6:30 p.m. — Women’s 800 semifinal: Samantha Murphy; Amanda Duvendack
7 p.m. — Women’s 400 semifinal: Ashley Spencer
7:15 p.m. — Men’s 400 semifinal: Stephon Pamilton; Juan Paul Green
7:30 p.m. — Women’s 100 semifinal: Morolake Akinosun
6 p.m. — Women’s 200 semifinal: Morolake Akinosun
8:20 p.m. — Women’s 1,600 relay semifinal: Marissa Golliday, Morolake Akinosun, Ashley Spencer, Ahlivia Spencer
8:40 p.m. — Men’s 1,600 relay semifinal: DJ Zahn, Cameron Viney, Juan Paul Green, Stephon Pamilton
9:15 p.m. — Men’s 10,000 final: Hunter Mickow
5:15 p.m. — Women’s pole vault final: Stephanie Richartz
7 p.m. — Women’s 100 final
7:20 p.m. — Women’s 800 final
7:55 p.m. — Women’s 400 final
8:05 p.m. — Men’s 400 final
2:45 p.m. — Women’s high jump final: Marissa Golliday
4:12 p.m. — Men’s 400 relay final
4:43 p.m. — Women’s 200 final
5:43 p.m. — Women’s 1,600 relay final
5:50 p.m. — Men’s 1,600 relay final
TV: ESPNU at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday
Live streaming: at Pac-12 Live Stream today and at WatchESPN on Thursday through Saturday
Live results: NCAA.com