Mendozza wins at new distance to lift UI women

Mendozza wins at new distance to lift UI women

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois fans haven't seen Tara Mendozza in an 800-meter race yet, and it might not happen anytime soon.

But the UI junior would like everyone to know she's still an 800 runner. She just has another tag now.

"Now I guess maybe we can say I'm a miler," Mendozza said after the home team won the Illinois Women's Invitational at the Armory.

The evidence arrived Saturday with Mendozza's brilliant effort in winning the mile in 4 minutes, 46.61 seconds, good enough to qualify her provisionally for the NCAA indoor meet March 5-6.

Mendozza has been an elite 800 runner for years, having achieved a No. 2 ranking nationally as a prep in Aurora, Colo. She was fourth in the Big Ten outdoor meet and placed fourth in the Big Ten indoor 600 meters last season.

But circumstances are different now. Mendozza stayed in Champaign last summer and worked diligently to gain much-needed strength. Then she enjoyed a sparkling cross-country season, finishing 15th at the Big Ten race.

Added to that, the Illini have some solid 800-types, most notably All-American Candace Nicholson, who was second Saturday. So why not the mile?

"(The 800) was her high school event, and she's still going to run some 800s, but all indications are – from her speed levels and strength right now – that she's going to run a good mile and might even run a great 3,000 as well," UI coach Gary Winckler said.

"The strength is there finally. With that added to the basic speed she has, it puts her in a pretty nice mile."

On Saturday, Mendozza took the lead from the start, repulsed a midrace challenge from Tennessee's Sharon Dickie and pulled away late.

"She was fantastic," Winckler said. "We've known for the past three or four weeks that she was ready to do something like that, and she just had the right race today. It was great to see a miler from Illinois running 4:40s again."

Said Mendozza: "I looked at the heat sheets today I said, 'You know what? Times don't matter today. I just have to concentrate on my race and what I have to get done.' Honestly, I didn't even notice (Dickie) was there. I was just really focused on doing what I had to do."

Mendozza's win highlighted an Illini victory. The UI scored 147 points, Tennessee 141, Miami 103 and Clemson 89. It wasn't cemented until the final event, the 4x400 relay. Illinois led by four points with scoring for the event on a 9-7-6-5 basis.

When anchor Aleisha Latimer got the baton, the UI was running third. Latimer trailed the leader by 50 meters.

But she flew past a Clemson runner in the first 100 meters, then reeled in Miami's Sharianne Lawson with 140 meters left. Illinois won the event by 4 seconds, Latimer running her leg in a blistering 53.4.

"I was just praying, 'Lord, give me the strength,' " Latimer said. "When I caught the Clemson girl, I knew it was possible."

Latimer was third in the 200 and second in the 60, provisionally qualifying for nationals in the latter.

The Illini also got victories from senior Stacy Ann Grant, now 2 for 2 in high jump competitions this winter, and junior Tisha Ponder, who beat a good field in the long jump.

Ponder jumped 19 feet, well off her personal best of 20-10.

"Wasn't bad. It was an improvement from the first meet," said Ponder, winner of the Big Ten indoor and outdoor titles as a freshman. "I know I can jump better than that, but you come out and do your best. Nineteen feet is reasonable for the second meet of the year."