UI sprinter Kelley one to watch at Big Ten meet at Armory

   CHAMPAIGN  When Gary Winckler watches Benita Kelley run the shortest of sprint events, the University of Illinois women''s track and field coach sees a supremely confident athlete.

   Not true, protests Kelley.

   "Every race I go into, I''m praying," the Illini junior said. "Every single step, everything I do, I''m praying, ''Lord, don''t let me mess up.'' "

   Could have fooled Winckler, and just about any other observer who''s seen Kelley make the 60-meter dash her own private domain this winter. In the history of UI women''s track, no sprinter ever has dominated the race like the Greenville, S.C., native.

   Entering the indoor season, Kelley already owned the top two times in school history in the 60. Now, each and every one of the top seven times are Kelley''s, too. Among the Illini Kelley has displaced on this list: 18-time All-American Celena Mondie-Milner.

   "She really is running right now better than she ever has," Winckler said of four-time All-American Kelley. "I won''t be surprised if she sets a personal best, either at the Big Ten (meet) or nationals. She''s really ready to do that right now."

   Kelley enters this weekend''s Big Ten Indoor Championships at the UI Armory as the defending champion in the 55 meters, the distance at which the shortest sprint is run in postseason collegiate meets.

   Although Kelley hasn''t run the 55 in any meet this season, her best time in the 60 (7.36) converts to a 6.83 in the 55. That''s just .09 seconds off her personal best.

   As well as Kelley is running, however, retaining her Big Ten crown is far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, she''ll be tangling with the reigning Big Ten record-holder. Michigan State senior Sevatheda Fynes has run a 6.71 this season, which ranks No. 1 in the nation and is .02 faster than the previous conference record held by Mondie-Milner.

   However the showdown plays out, Winckler says Kelley should know by now that she can compete with anybody in the 55.

   "She''s very gifted in that area," the Illini coach said. "Her body type lends itself to a good starting ability and she has good acceleration mechanics.

   "She just has a lot of confidence in her ability to perform, and that makes a big difference in that event. The 55 is a big head event. You either have the confidence to run it or you don''t."

   If Kelley''s own words don''t reflect that confidence, perhaps it''s because she''s still getting comfortable with the idea of being considered one of the best in the nation in the 55. It''s a distance she''d never run before entering college.

   "My starts weren''t too good when I first started out," said Kelley, who placed third in the 55 at last year''s NCAA Indoor Championships.

   "God gave me the speed, but it was a technical race. Now that I''m using the blocks and the techniques, it''s really helping me."

   At 5-foot-3, Kelley routinely goes up against sprinters with longer strides. But you won''t convince Kelley, at least now, that her taller rivals have an advantage.

   "I used to think that when I first started out, but then they (UI coaches) got that out of my head," she said. "It''s not how tall or how long your strides are, it''s just the way you can execute your race."

   Although Kelley has left her most indelible mark in the 60, her impact hardly ends there. She enters this weekend''s meet with the No. 4 time in the conference in the 200 (24.22).

   She also has helped Illinois to the No. 1 clocking in the 4 x 400 relay.

   Last season, the then-sophomore placed eighth in the NCAA outdoor 100 and in that same meet ran on the UI''s third-place 4 x 100 relay team. And last summer, when pitted against the top talent in the nation, Kelley reached the semifinals of the 100 in the U.S. Olympic Trials.

   None of which should come as a surprise.

   Kelley has been a force to contend with in the 100 and 200 since her days at Southside High School in Greenville. As a freshman, she swept the 100 and 200 titles at the South Carolina state meet.

   The next year, Kelley set state records in both events. She finished her prep career with four state titles apiece in the 100 and 200.

   "Right now, she is pretty versatile," Winckler said. "She could even run a very good open 400 as well."

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