Mon, May 26: UI women''s streak no hurdle

Mon, May 26: UI women''s streak no hurdle

   CHAMPAIGN  It''s becoming a staple of spring, right up there with tornado warnings, Michael and bad Chicago baseball.

   The Big Ten''s 400-meter women''s hurdling champ is going to be decked out in something orange and blue.

   "Illinois has always had great 400 hurdlers," Yvonne Harrison said. "That''s why I came here."

   First came Victoria Fulcher, an All-American at it in 1987 and ''88. Then, of course, Tonja Buford-Bailey, who won the school''s first NCAA title in it in ''92. And who can ever forget Tonya Williams, who repeated Buford''s feat in ''95 and again last spring?

   On Sunday, Harrison joined the club, becoming the seventh Illini to be crowned the Big Ten''s 400 hurdles champ in the last seven Big Ten outdoors meets.

   "I''m tickled; the streak''s alive," said Williams, who tackled her successor at the finish line.

   Harrison, who''s a long ways from her Bronx, N.Y., home, wiped out the competition. With injured Iowa star Wynsome Cole a no-show for Sunday''s final, Harrison beat the field by two seconds, finishing in 58.53.

   "I''ve been waiting for this since I got here," Harrison said. "I remember when I ran outdoors here for the first time and got second to Tonya. I said, ''One day, hopefully I can be like her.'' And here I am."

   For the UI women, Harrison''s effort was the only thing worth celebrating on the final day. The Illini''s 10-year streak of top-two outdoor finishes came to a screeching halt  they were eighth  and the hosts finished with just two individual conference titles (Williams had four by herself last year).

   The one was a gimme.

   "We''ve got the best hurdle coach in the entire nation," Williams said.

   That''d be Gary Winckler, who''s coached three Olympic 400 hurdlers  two during his time at Florida State and Buford-Bailey, a ''96 bronze medalist.

   "It''s just kind of happened," Winckler said. "You adapt your coaching to whatever athletes you have. If you''ve got a lot of good sprinters, you better learn to be a good sprint coach. We''ve never really set out with a goal of recruiting a bunch of 400 hurdlers, but we''ve always been fortunate enough to get people who have talent in that event."

   Such as Harrison, whom UI assistant Ron Garner had his eye on since he saw her at a high school meet. Illinois missed out on her then  Harrison signed with Texas  but caught a break when her SAT scores weren''t up to snuff and she went the junior college route.

   The Longhorns recommended Odessa Junior College, where they could keep an eye on her. Little did they know that Illinois would swipe her right from under their noses.

   "Ron Garner continued to come after me," Harrison said. "After I saw his dedication to me and his support, I just felt like that was the right situation."

   Sunday more than made up for what''s been a bummer of a second UI season for Harrison. Two months ago, the girl they call "Boo Boo" (it''s tattooed on her thigh) lived up to her nickname, taking a nasty spill down the stairs of her apartment.

   She was in a hurry to hit the mall, which she did anyway. Of course, she didn''t notice her ankle was the color purple and the size of a shot put until the shopping spree was over.

   "It kept me out the whole outdoor season," Harrison said. "I''ve really been depressed."

   There''s no quicker picker-upper than a Big Ten title, which came less than a month after her return, at the Penn Relays. She ran 58.75 then and 57.71 Saturday. Two weeks from now, when the nation''s finest gather in Bloomington, Ind., Winckler''s expecting another drop.

   As for the streak?

   Harrison will be back to defend her title before making a handoff to recruit Shontel Powell of Newport News, Va., who broke Williams'' Virginia state record in the 400 hurdles.

   "It''ll just keep getting passed on," Williams said.