Sprinter finds UI much more bearable

Sprinter finds UI much more bearable

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Her times on the track were only half the reason Chequetta Bearfield ran off with Illinois' Most Improved Award at last week's team banquet.

What put the Nebraska native over the top were the strides she made in her studies.

"Her first year was a tough one in terms of taking school seriously," Gary Winckler said. "She's proven this year she certainly had the academic ability. She was just a little lazy. And homesick. We came close to losing her.

"I came close to kicking her butt out of here, too. About three times."

Winckler, who's graduated all but two of his athletes in 14 years at Illinois and five at Florida State, takes this school stuff as seriously as any coach on campus.

You slip up, you sit down. Bearfield learned that the hard way as a freshman, running in a handful of meets.

"It was really, really, really hard for me to adjust to being away from home and adjusting to school," said Bearfield, or just plain "Bear" to her buddies. "But this year, my attitude toward school and track and the whole thing has really improved as far as how much effort I put into it."

After surviving as a freshman, she's thriving as a sophomore. In addition to Most Improved honors, Winckler gave her the team MVP award last week. More hardware could be on the way this weekend, when the Bear leads the Illini into the Big Ten Outdoor Championships at Iowa City, Iowa.

She's as close to a favorite as Winckler's women have, running the second-fastest time in the conference in the 200-meter dash (23.44 seconds) and the third fastest in the 100 (11.44).

With All-America teammates Aleisha Latimer (hamstring) and Kerry Ann Richards (foot) out of action for most of the outdoor season, Illinois needed Bearfield to come up big in the sprints and relays.

"Since they've been hurt, I'm the only one out there running," Bearfield said. "It's like 'We need you. You have to do this.' "

If Illinois hopes to finish in the upper half of the conference for a 14th time in 15 outdoor championships under Winckler, Bearfield must sizzle again. She hasn't disappointed in a somewhat disappointing spring for Winckler, who's had a tough time not wondering "what if?" when it comes to his talented trio of sprinters.

"If the three of them were together and healthy and running their best, we'd have one of the best sprint teams in the country right now," he said.

Latimer and Richards return to action this weekend, but only in a limited capacity. Latimer won't try to defend her title in the 100. Richards will sit out the 200.

But just having the two of them around helps Bearfield, who leans on the former Big Ten champs.

"If I didn't have them to help me out, something would definitely be missing from me and my performance," she said.

Known as a worldwide recruiter, Winckler hadn't landed anyone from the Cornhusker State before Bearfield, a four-time state champ from Omaha. His assistant, Nebraska native John Baumann, got a tip about Bearfield, who didn't attract much college interest before Illinois got involved.

"I don't think many people look for runners out of Nebraska," she said.

The right track

Chequetta Bearfield isn't the only Illini who could walk away a winner from this weekend's Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Iowa City, Iowa. Some other possibilities:

Sherman Armstrong. Olympic hopeful could run backward and win both hurdles events for a second straight year.

Perdita Felicien. No Illinois freshman's ever been faster in the 100 hurdles than Canadian, who'll run in NCAAs.

Gia Lewis. Only 12 throwers nationwide have flung the discus farther than the former Centennial star (175 feet, 7 inches).

Justin Norberg. Senior would be a cinch to win his second Big Ten pole vault title if not for a bum hamstring.

Babatunde Ridley. Busy bee has a shot in 200 (seeded second), long jump (fourth), 4x100 (third) or 4x400 (sixth).

Jason Van Swol. Two-time IHSA, Big Ten champ the latest in a long line of 800 greats (Hamer, Clancy, Koers, True).

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