With 14 freshmen, UI women''s track coach braced for growing pains

   CHAMPAIGN  Nine Big Ten Conference team championships since 1988. Fourth place in the NCAA Outdoor Championships each of the last two years. A total of 254 All-America selections since 1985. And 170 Big Ten individual and relay champions in the same span.

   With credentials like those, it''s little wonder that terms like "perennial power," "national contender," and "league favorite," have become synonymous with University of Illinois women''s track and field.

   Little wonder, too, that Illini coach Gary Winckler gets a tad nervous from time to time about the huge expectations that have developed around his powerhouse program.

   This season is one of those times. That''s because this season, unlike the last four, he doesn''t have two-time NCAA individual champion Tonya Williams and six-time All-American Dawn Riley. That''s also because this season he does have an extraordinarily large number of freshmen  14 in all.

   "I''ve tried to kind of forewarn people that, yes, talentwise we probably have better talent than we''ve ever had," Winckler said this week. "But when you look at the fact that almost 50 percent of this team is freshmen, you can''t have the high expectations that go with winning a conference championship and placing in the top four in the nation.

   "It could happen, but you''re asking for a lot of maturity to take place in a real short period of time. Just try to be as patient as we are."

   That patience gets put to the test beginning Saturday, when the Illini will make their season debut against Indiana State at the UI Armory.

   "The last couple years, we could jump in with a little more aggressive schedule .. and put the heat on people a little sooner," Winckler said. "But right now we''re going to have to take a more developmental approach."

   The talent seemingly is there in abundance to develop. Winckler calls this freshman class perhaps his best since he arrived at Illinois in 1985. It includes:

    Tara Mendozza of Aurora, Colo., who as a senior was the No. 2-ranked prep in the nation in the 800 meters, both indoors and out.

   "She''s shown that she will probably fit into the Big Ten- and national-caliber mode of this team the quickest," Winckler said.

    Candace Nicholson of Cleveland, who ranked right behind Mendozza in the 800 indoors and outdoors.

    Tisha Ponder of San Jose, Calif., who was No. 2 among the nation''s high schoolers in the 300-meter hurdles and No. 4 in the long jump.

    Darlene Tulua of Monterey, Calif., who ranked No. 3 in the discus, No. 4 in the shot.

   "But still, they''re freshmen and they don''t have the (collegiate) experience yet," cautions Winckler, who already has lost Tulua for at least the indoor season due to a knee injury that required surgery. "My feeling is it would be a bitter mistake to push these people too soon."

   Not surprisingly, Winckler has no such tempering of expectations for his veterans  particularly a junior class that is the heart of this squad.

   "Certainly we need our juniors to step up a notch if we''re going to maintain the same level of team that we''ve had in the last couple of years," he said.

   Juniors like weight thrower Collinus Newsome, high jumper Nora Weber and sprinters Benita Kelley and Aspen Burkett all bring All-America credentials to that task.

   Newsome has yet to be defeated in the shot put in four Big Ten meets, including indoors and out. Weber tied for third in the NCAA outdoor meet last spring, tied for fourth in the NCAA indoor meet, and four times last season came within a half-inch of breaking the 6-foot barrier.

   Kelley placed third in the 55 meters in the 1996 NCAA indoor meet and shares the Big Ten record in the event (6.73 seconds) with former Illini great Celena Mondie-Milner.

   And Burkett, the 1995 Big Ten outdoor freshman of the year, helped Illinois'' 400 relay team place third last spring in the NCAA outdoor meet.

   However, Burkett, who can''t seem to catch a break in regard to injuries, has been bothered by a foot problem and may be withheld on Saturday. She previously has battled chronic back problems.

   Among the sophomores, three in particular distinguished themselves last season.

   Kerry Ann Richards succeeded Burkett as Big Ten outdoor freshman of the year after winning the 100 and running on the league record-setting 400 relay.

   Stacy Ann Grant tied for fifth in the NCAA outdoor high jump, combining with Weber to give Illinois the best combo in the nation in that event.

   And Yvonne Harrison came on strong at the end of her first season, placing second to Williams in the Big Ten 400 hurdles and fifth in the 100 hurdles at the same meet.

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