Relay the word
After runner-up finishes each of the last two years, the Illini men's 400-meter relay team appears poised to take that final step up the medals podium. The group of Andrew Riley, Azeez Shogbuyi, Josh Zinzer and Stanley Azie turned in a historic performance in late April at the Drake Relays, breaking an 18-year-old UI record. Blazing to a winning time of 39.17 seconds, they eclipsed the previous school mark of 39.59 set in 1993 by a foursome that included Anthony Jones — who still holds the Big Ten Championships record in the 100 dash — and future NFL cornerback Scott Turner. Illinois, seeking its first league title in the 400 relay since 1997, enters as the top seed in the event by more than a half-second. Indiana is No. 2 at 39.84.
Riley, a two-time NCAA hurdles champion, will seek the fifth Big Ten hurdles crown of his career and second in the 110 hurdles. But the junior isn't the only Illini hurdler who's a strong threat to finish first. Senior Cody Wisslead enters with the top time in the men's 400 hurdles (50.73) — the league's only athlete with a sub-51-second time in the event. A member of the Illini's 1,600 relay, Wisslead was Illinois' second-highest point scorer at the 2010 Big Ten outdoor meet behind Riley. Meanwhile, senior Tamika Robinson is seeded third in the women's 100 hurdles at 13.32. Like Riley and Wisslead, she's a key contributor in the relays, serving as anchor on the Illini's second-seeded 400 relay unit.
Vaulting up the charts
Matthew Bane shocked the Big Ten last winter by winning the league's indoor pole vault title as a freshman. The former high school state champion from Rochester is coming off his best performance of the outdoor season — clearing 16 feet, 10 3/4 inches at the Drake Relays late last month. Bane enters as the sixth seed, but as he proved at the Big Ten indoor meet, he's capable of rising to the occasion. Another Illini freshman, Stephanie Richartz, deserves to be in the conversation in the women's pole vault. After breaking the UI indoor mark in February, the Mundelein Carmel graduate became the first Illini female vaulter to clear 13 feet with a 13-1 3/4 mark last month. She enters as the No. 4 seed.
Keep an eye on the women's 1,500 meters. It shapes up as one of the more competitive duels — men's or women's — in this meet. Illini sophomore Stephanie Morgan broke a 20-year-old Drake Relays record last month while winning in 4:15.90. Only former UI great Angela Bizzarri, a three-time NCAA distance-running champion, has clocked a faster time (4:15.42) in the event in school history. Morgan, a transfer from Baylor, enters as the No. 2 seed behind Michigan redshirt freshman Jillian Smith. The 2011 NCAA runner-up in the indoor 800, Smith has run a best time in the 1,500 of 4:14.65.
Kyle Engnell finished seventh in the Big Ten 3,000 steeplechase each of the last two years. This time, the Illini junior enters as the runner to beat with the No. 1 seed time. Engnell ran the sixth-fastest steeplechase clocking in school history — 8:48.45 — while placing second at the Mt. SAC Relays in mid-April. Then, the former 1,600 high school state champion for Lockport came within four seconds of his career best while winning the Drake Relays steeplechase. The Illini women have a steeplechase contender, too, in Chantelle Groenewoud. The senior is seeded third with a time of 10:18.59. She's run the event as fast as 10:17.37 during her career.