UI women hamstrung by injuries
CHAMPAIGN – During the indoor season, Gary Winckler kept thinking he'd have his track and field team intact one of these days.
Now that the outdoor season has arrived, the University of Illinois coach is resigned to thinking it'll be one of these years. Not this one, though.
"We'll take this year and I guess reload for the next couple of years," Winckler said.
With a number of key athletes still contending with injuries, Winckler has decided to bite the bullet for 1997 and make extensive use of the redshirt rule.
Among those who will sit out the outdoor season are a trio of 1996 outdoor All-Americans: sprinters Aspen Burkett and Kerry Ann Richards and shot putter Collinus Newsome.
The absence of those three figures to be a crippling blow to Illinois' bid for a Big Ten Conference title and a high national finish. Add in the continued loss of highly touted freshmen Candace Nicholson and Darlene Tulua, and this is not nearly the team Winckler envisioned when the school year started.
As such, the UI coach has changed his vision of what should be emphasized for the rest of 1997.
"I really want the focus to be on individual development," said Winckler, whose Illini were fourth in the Big Ten and tied for 18th nationally indoors. "I've tried to have them look at this thing as a long-range deal. I don't like to go into the Big Ten meet not in the top two or three. That's not a situation we ever want to be in.
"But under the circumstances, this gives us a chance to have a pretty strong team ... for at least the next two years."
Burkett, the defending Big Ten champion in the outdoor 200 meters, is nursing a foot problem. Richards, the 1996 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has battled shin pain. And Tulua, who as a senior was the third-ranked prep in the nation in the discus and No. 4 in the shot put, is out with a knee injury.
Nicholson has been out of action since January after being declared academically ineligible. As a prep senior, the Cleveland native ranked third nationally in the 800 both indoors and out.
Newsome is being redshirted for a couple of reasons, Winckler said.
The Illini junior has changed her technique from a slide move to a spin move, and sitting out competition this spring will give her needed time to make the adjustment, he said.
Although Newsome won her fifth consecutive Big Ten shot put title during the indoor season, she slipped from sixth place the year before in the NCAA Indoor Championships to eighth earlier this month.
Holding out an athlete the caliber of Newsome this spring, Winckler said, also should make Illinois more of a national outdoor title contender in 1998 and '99.
"When you add in the good recruits we have coming in to the people we have coming back," Winckler said, "we can put up the numbers (of athletes) to hopefully make a bigger splash at nationals."
Illinois is expected to regain high jumper Nora Weber in mid-April. The Illini junior, who redshirted during the 1995 outdoor season, has been out with leg and ankle problems.
If there is a good year to have a smaller roster than usual, says Winckler, this might be it. The coaching staff has been short a person since August, when assistant Scott Jones took a job at Akron, leaving Winckler and top assistant Ron Garner spread thin at practices.
"This maybe gives Ron and myself more time to coach on an individual basis," Winckler said. "I have to admit I'm being real particular on this (hiring a replacement). I want someone of my and Ron's caliber for that position. When we find that person, I think we're going to have a great staff."
The Illini return to action Saturday in the Purdue Open at West Lafayette, Ind.
Illinois got off to an encouraging start to the outdoor season last Saturday in the six-team Cowboy Duals at Stillwater, Okla. The Illini won six individual events and a relay. The individual winners were Benita Kelley (100), Yvonne Harrison (100 hurdles), Stacy Ann Grant (400 hurdles and high jump), Tisha Ponder (triple jump) and Jennifer Pryor (discus).
In men's track and field: Next meet April 12.
After opening the outdoor season last weekend in Arizona, the Illini won't return to action until April 12 in the California Invitational at Oakland.
Senior sprinter Dorian Green paced Illinois' showing in the Willie Williams Invitational at Tucson, winning the 200 and running the anchor leg on a first-place 4x400 relay unit.