Sun, May 25: Nothing remains to Ponder

Sun, May 25: Nothing remains to Ponder

   CHAMPAIGN  Would someone please remind Tisha Ponder that she''s still only 19 years young?

   At her current pace, the University of Illinois freshman will run out of track and field things to do by the time she''s a junior.

   On Saturday, Ponder claimed her second Big Ten long jump title in her second try, making her the best bet to win her second Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award today.

   "If you wrote a script, this is how you''d want it to go," Illinois assistant Ron Garner said.

   Her freshman story, a good read from the first page, gets even better toward the end.

   Ponder, in her last meet before the NCAA Championships, soared 20 feet, 10 inches in a light drizzle Saturday, breaking the old school record. Old as in two weeks ago  the last time Ponder smashed a school standard that had stood for 15 years.

   "This proves that regardless of age or class ... it''s not so much who''s the better athlete last week or who''s the better athlete next week, it''s who''s the best athlete on the day of the meet," said Ponder, also the conference''s best at the indoor championships.

   Ponder, the host school''s only champ so far, was 1 of 2 freshmen  women or men  to walk away winners on Day 2 of the Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The other, Indiana''s Mateja Bezjak, chucks the javelin.

   The rave reviews are starting to pour in.

   "I think you can say that she could become one of the best jumpers ever in the Big Ten, if not the best," Garner said. "I think she has established herself as the most consistent jumper in the history of Illinois, performing at that level. I can''t say she''s the best. I can''t give her that."

   Then what''d be left?

   She missed the Big Ten Outdoor Championships record  set by Ohio State''s Theresa Diggs in 1988  by all of 1 feet, 3/4 inches.

   And she''s got three years to make it up.

   "I really wanted to go 21," Ponder said.

   Aw shucks.

   "That''s Tisha Ponder," Garner said. "The accolades are nice, but she doesn''t care about those things. She just knows that she can be better, and that''s what she focuses on."

   "I really wanted to go 21," she said.

   No need. She''s already on the guest list for the NCAA Championships two weeks from now in Bloomington, Ind., and she earned herself an invite to the U.S. Championships with Saturday''s leap.

   The freshman wiped out the field, which included former Big Ten champs Tania Longe of Michigan (fourth) and Shandi Boyd-Pleasant of Ohio State (sixth). In the first outdoor meet of her UI career, the cool Californian beat runner-up Heather Hyland by almost half a foot and Penn State''s Monique Gillman by eight inches.

   Consider it a graduation present for Hyland, Gillman and Boyd-Pleasant, all experiencing their final Big Ten final.

   "Other coaches were coming up to me, saying they couldn''t believe the gamesmanship she has as a freshman," Garner said.

   "You just gotta keep calm and keep your cool," Ponder said. "You can''t worry about who jumped further than you, it''s starting to rain. You can''t get busy with outside stuff. I shut that off and just focus on the runway."