Wed, May 21: UI''s Ponder a long jump from home

Wed, May 21: UI''s Ponder a long jump from home

   CHAMPAIGN  She''s been a Midwestern girl for almost a year, but Tisha Ponder''s still got a lot to learn about the local customs.

   "It''ll be 40-something degrees outside, and she''ll be out there with a sleeveless top and Spandex shorts," Illinois track teammate Stacy Ann Grant said with a chuckle.

   Ponder''s idea of bundling up is slipping into something with long sleeves. See, where she''s from, cold means anything under 70, and "hitting the beach" doesn''t mean a trip to Lake of the Woods.

   What''s a California kid doing in corn country, anyhow?

   "It hasn''t been but a few years that athletes from California have expressed an interest in coming to the Midwest," said Illinois coach Gary Winckler, happy to see it. "It''s a great track state, always has been."

   Illinois'' 1997 women''s roster features athletes from seven states (plus Jamaica). Winckler''s on a first-name basis with everyone who''s anyone in Colorado, where he found Aspen Burkett, Collinus Newsome and ''97 recruit Aleisha Latimer, and he''s big in the Big Apple, too, luring Grant, Lyria Martin and Rochelle Walling to campus from Brooklyn and the Bronx.

   Now he''d like to make California a regular stop on the recruiting trail.

   Especially if there are more Ponders out there.

   "I wanted to venture out, try something new," said Ponder, who won California''s long jump title as a senior at San Jose''s Del Mar High. "Not everyone who lives in California wants to stay there."

   Winckler convinced two of them  Ponder and Monterey discus dynamo Darlene Tulua (redshirting)  that C-U was the place for them.

   Not that Ponder knew much about C-U when she signed her name on the dotted line of a UI letter of intent instead of ones from Arizona and Miami. The future doctor and past senior class president was so sold on the academic part, she didn''t bother to check out the social slate.

   Her bad.

   "I kinda do miss some of the social things: going to the mall, going to Six Flags, things like that," she said. "It''s really limited out here. You''ve got to go to Chicago."

   And she''s been forced to search for a new hobby. Mountain biking''s kind of hard to do in a state that''s flatter than a week-old mug of beer.

   "Maybe Mahomet," Ponder said. "There are a couple of hills."

   Athletically, she''s fit in just fine. One of the featured attractions at this weekend''s 16th annual Women''s Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Ponder is Illinois'' new outdoor record holder in the long jump.

   She pulled that off Saturday at home, soaring 20 feet, 9 1/4 inches to surpass Becky Kaiser''s 15-year-old standard (20-7 3/4). That''s 7 1/2 inches better than her previous best jump, which ranked second on the Big Ten''s spring leaderboard.

   Add the record to her Big Ten Indoor Freshman of the Year plaque and her Big Ten indoor long jump title, and you''ve got a pretty decent rookie season.

   "It''s not like she''s done something phenomenal," UI assistant Ron Garner said. "Tish is talented, but Tish is prepared to do those things. We have those expectations for her."

   This weekend, the expectation''s another Big Ten title for the collection. Do that, and she''s got a shot at becoming the third straight Illini to win the conference''s Outdoor Freshman of the Year, succeeding ''96 winner Kerry Ann Richards and Burkett.

   She''s no lock. Also coming to town are Michigan''s Tonia Longe, the Big Ten champ two years ago, and Ohio State''s Shandi Boyd-Pleasant, last year''s winner.

   "If we have any advantage, it''s the momentum she has right now," Garner said.