Freshman leaps to Big Ten title

Freshman leaps to Big Ten title

   CHAMPAIGN  For a while, Tisha Ponder was just happy to be on a Big Ten track team.

   The Illinois freshman from San Jose, Calif., was looking to establish herself as a long jumper and to get adjusted to indoor track and life on the college level.

   But that quickly changed for Ponder when the Illini had their first meet this season.

   "There were only three jumpers in the competition, and they were going 18-19 feet," said Illinois assistant Ron Garner, who coaches the long and triple jumpers. "She got nervous and jumped 17 feet, 93/4 inches. I said, ''All right, that''s not what we''re seeing in practice.'' "

   The next week at the USAir Invitational in Johnson City, Tenn., Ponder found her form and took fourth place against a field full of All-Americans.

   That helped set the stage for Saturday''s Big Ten Women''s Indoor Track and Field Championships, where she went 20-13/4 to claim the conference long jump title at the UI Armory.

   "Coming in as a freshman, you''ve got all these nerves," Ponder said. "Everyone''s looking at you. But after the Johnson City meet, I knew I had it in me.

   "I had to stay focused and execute things in practice."

   Garner knew Ponder could reach the potential she showed as the fourth-ranked prep long jumper in the nation at Del Mar High School.

   Sometimes, he said, it just takes time for freshman to adjust to new coaches, more work and tougher competition.

   "When you''re in high school, you''re already established as one of the best in the state," Garner said. "You know you''re going to win most meets, and if you had a bad day, you''re still in the top three. At this level, every meet is the equivalent of the state meet.

   "Then you get to doing things beyond your preparation. That first meet, she wanted to do everything we''d ever mentioned to her in training."

   Called a great listener by Garner, Ponder kept her focus and worked up to the championship level.

   She also got some added support Saturday from her prep coach, Scott Evans, who flew in from San Jose for the Big Ten meet.

   "I didn''t feel like the pressure was on," Ponder said. "Now it''s a reality. It''s awesome."

   Ponder''s performance was the highlight of the day for injury riddled Illinois, which stands in seventh place with 10 points, 35 behind leader Wisconsin. Michigan is second with 30 points.

   With the UI missing five athletes, distance runner Jenny Marine acquired a bronchial condition and missed the distance medley relay, Illini head coach Gary Winckler said.

   "It''s basically the kind of day I expected," Winckler said. "There were some disappointments, but (Lyria) Martin got through in two events, and that was good for her."

   Martin, a freshman, made today''s finals in the 200- and 400-meter dashes. Sophomore Yvonne Harrison made the 55 hurdles finals with an NCAA provisional qualifying time of 7.95 seconds, and freshman Tara Mendozza advanced to the 800 final.

   Junior Benita Kelley posted provisional times in the 55 dash (6.86) and blew away the field in the 200 (24.23).

   "I know if I can do what I''ve been doing, I''ll have a good shot," said Kelley, the defending conference champ and Big Ten record holder in the 55 dash.

   In other finals Saturday, Michigan''s Tania Longe won the pentathlon with an Armory record 4,118 points.

   Wisconsin''s Kathy Butler defended her conference title in the 3,000 meters, winning in 9:27.69. The Badgers'' distance medley relay team of Janet Westphal, Anneli Melin, Avrie Walters and Jenni Westphal won in 11:42.59.

   Action starts today with field events at 12:45 p.m. and running events at 1:50.

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