Armstrong wants to give UI coach a going-away gift
DURHAM, N.C. – Willie Williams is calling it a career at the end of the year, and Sherman Armstrong has the perfect retirement present all picked out.
It's gold and it's shiny and it's usually displayed in a glass case or on a mantel.
"I want to send Coach Willie out with a bang," said Armstrong, Illinois' junior track star. "An NCAA championship would be a start."
Aside from a spot in the Olympics, which the two of them will work on later, nothing would make either man happier.
Williams, who won two of his own NCAA titles before going on to be just as successful a coach at his alma mater, believes Armstrong's also good enough to be a back-to-back winner in his specialty event, the 400-meter hurdles.
And who knows what else?
"I'll tell you, the Olympics is not far out of Sherman's reach," Williams said.
Armstrong's been sure of it since the April 29 Drake Relays, when he went up against some of the best hurdlers on the planet. There was Derrick Adkins, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist. There was Joey Woody, who finished sixth at last year's World Championships.
And there was Armstrong, the college kid from Chicago, running stride for stride, hurdle for hurdle, with both of them.
"It was kind of weird," Armstrong said. "I just figured I'd be chasing them, but it was a fight. Neck and neck. That was cool."
Armstrong finished that race in a school record-breaking 49.20 seconds – one spot behind Woody, the winner, and one spot ahead of Adkins. He'll bump into both of them again in July in Sacramento, Calif., at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"At NCAAs, he won't have that pressure of making the Olympic Trials because he's already qualified," Williams said. "So he can run a little reckless now."
Armstrong gets all excited for these big meets, when he gets a rare chance to go up against many of the country's top hurdlers. Or "cats," as he calls them.
Like that cat from Southern Cal, Felix Saches, whose 48.86 clocking is the only faster 400 hurdles time than his. And that cat from Baylor, Bayano Kamani, who won last year's NCAA title and has developed something of a rivalry with Armstrong, who has beaten him two out of three times this season.
"All the top guys going at it to see who's the best," Armstrong said. "It's all fun to me."
In addition to the 400 hurdles, Armstrong also made the NCAA cut in the 110 hurdles, his time of 13.72 seconds putting him ninth nationally and giving him another school record.
He's the only hurdler rated in the top 10 in both events, which couldn't be more different.
"The 110 is just speed, whereas the 400 is endurance and speed and a mixture of all kinds of stuff," he said.
The 400 hurdle finals are set for Friday at Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium. The 110 championship will be decided Saturday, leaving Armstrong and Williams ample time to prepare for both.
Winning either would be something. It's been 46 years since Illinois has had an NCAA hurdles champ. Willard Thompson (120-yard highs) and Joe Corley (220-yardlows) both won it all at the 1954 Outdoor Championships.
"Sherman's definitely the best we've ever had," Williams said. "The record speaks for itself."
Sherman Armstrong will have plenty of company at this week's NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Durham, N.C. A look at the rest of Illinois' traveling party:
Chequetta Bearfield, Soph.
200 dash, 4x100 relay
Hits leadoff on the relay, which finished in 44.64 seconds at the Big Ten meet, the nation's ninth-fastest time. Nebraska native also made it in the 200 (23.44 seconds), the sixth straight year the Illini have had a qualifier in that race. "She just keeps getting a little bit better every week," coach Gary Winckler said of his team MVP.
Perdita Felicien, Fr.
100 hurdles, 4x100 relay
The school's never had a faster freshman in the 100 hurdles than the Canadian, whose time of 13.02 ranks third in UI history behind Big Ten champs Dawn Riley (13.00) and Tonya Williams (13.01). But both Riley and Williams posted their times as seniors. Like Armstrong, Felicien, seeded ninth in the hurdles, has Olympic aspirations.
Gia Lewis, Jr.
Hometown proud of former Centennial standout, who came within 2 inches of tying Laura Mindock's 4-year-old school record in April. Lewis' toss of 175 feet, 7 inches ranks 13th nationally. The multitalented one, who used to play forward for Theresa Grentz, finished third at Big Ten meet.
Lyria Martin, Sr.
Has a 4x100 history, teaming up with Benita Kelley, Aspen Burkett and Kerry Ann Richards to finish sixth in this event at the 1998 NCAA Championships. Illinois' fastest 400 runner the last two years came to Illinois from Bronx, N.Y., same hometown as three-time UI All-American Yvonne Harrison.
Tisha Ponder, Sr.
Californian going out the way she came in: with style. The Big Ten's 1997 indoor and outdoor champ had to wait three years for her next conference crown, which she picked up two weeks ago in Iowa City. She came within a quarter-inch of breaking the school record she set as a freshman. Leap of 20-9 3/4 puts her 20th in the nation.
Kerry Ann Richards, Grad.
Anchor knows how to turn it up at this time of year, running on 4x100 Big Ten champions in 1996, '98 and '99. The Jamaican's final season as an Illini has been curtailed by a foot injury, but she's back at NCAAs for a fourth time. Dean's list regular shooting for her fourth All-American award.
Jason Van Swol, Soph.
The three-time Big Ten champ is hoping to make his national breakthrough this week. He's been to two NCAA meets but never has made a final. This could be the year. The biology major's top time – 1:47.89 – makes him the No. 8 seed. Illinois has had a runner place in this race in three of last four NCAA meets (Marko Koers in '96, Bobby True in '98 and '99).
Few programs on campus have a prouder tradition than Illinois men's track, which has produced 25 individual NCAA outdoor champions through the years. A rundown:
Name, Year(s), Event(s)
David Abbot, 1928-29, Two mile
Dick Coleman, 1952, pole vault
Joe Corley, 1954, 220 low hurdles
Dike Eddleman, 1948, high jump
Charlton Ehizuelen, 1974, triple jump
1975, long jump
Robert Kelley, 1944, 880 yards
George Kerr, 1959-60, 880 yards
Marko Koers, 1993, '96, 1,500 meters
Don Laz, 1951, pole vault
Bill Mathis, 1946, 100 yards
Vern McDermot, 1931, pole vault
Herb McKenley, 1946-47, 220, 440 yards
Dave Nichols, 1944, 120 high hurdles
Harold Osborn, 1922, high jump
Robert Phelps, 1944-45, pole vault
Frank Purma, 1932, discus
Robert Rehberg, 1946, mile
Bob Richards, 1947, pole vault
Lee Sentman, 1930, 220 low hurdles
John Sittig, 1927, 880 yards
Willard Thompson, 1954, 120 high hurdles
Al Urbanckas, 1957, high jump
George Walker, 1945, 120 high, 220 low hurdles
1948, 400 intermediate hurdles
Willie Williams, 1953-54, 100 yards
Buddy Young, 1944, 100 yards