COLUMBUS, Ohio — Pole vaulters are among the least likely to embrace the team component of track and field. They perform virtually in a different sport.
But Illinois junior Stephanie Richartz is grateful for team scoring, and the Illini have been beneficiaries. She repeated as champion and led an improbable 1-5-6 finish in the pole vault to catapult Illinois nearer to its first outdoor women’s Big Ten team championship since 2007.
“That’s huge for the team,” Richartz said of the vaulters’ 17 points.
The Illini women have 31 overall and are in fourth place, 20 points behind leader Wisconsin. But Illinois amassed 13 individual qualifiers for today’s track finals and features top-ranked teams in the 400- and 1,600-meter relays.
It is a steeper climb for the Illini men, whose 17 points put them nearly 30 behind first-place Nebraska. Illinois hasn’t won the outdoor championships since 1994.
The Illini advanced 10 qualifiers, or two more than coach Mike Turk projected.”
“We’ve got lots of scoring opportunities,” Turk said. “We’ve got a shot to do something (today).”
Vaulters spark women
Richartz vaulted 14 feet. Senior Elizabeth Eitzen and freshman Jennifer DeBellis were fifth and sixth, respectively, both with personal bests of 12-10¼. Eitzen and DeBellis were done before Richartz attempted her first bar, 13-2¼, but the champion said that energized her.
“It makes me excited to enter the competition when my teammates have already done well,” Richartz said.
Richartz, a former walk-on and teenage gymnast, has moments when she can’t believe she’s doing what she’s doing. She was an 11-6 vaulter in high school. She botched her first attempt — “I freaked out a little bit” — but had Illini nearby to calm her.
“After that, I mean, all my nerves were out,” Richartz said. “From there, I was good.”
She was happy the pole vault was postponed to Saturday from Friday because her favorite part of being in the infield “is being able to cheer on my teammates when they run by me.” There wasn’t much of that in Friday’s multi-events.
Illinois senior Marissa Golliday completed the heptathlon Saturday, finishing third with 5,303 points.
The Illini needed the vaulters’ points because they endured a setback in the sprints. Lauren Hollingsworth developed a cramp Friday, couldn’t run in the 400 relay Saturday and failed to qualify for the 400 final. She withdrew from the 200.
“She was going to be a workhorse for us this weekend because she’s been doing so well the past few weeks,” Illini coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said.
Illinois had not intended to employ sophomore Ashley Spencer in trials of the 400 relay but had to do so with Hollingsworth ailing. Buford-Bailey told Spencer merely to stride through the anchor leg.
“She was a team player and not even prepared to run,” Buford-Bailey said.
Spencer showed how ready she was in her signature 400 meters, running her season opener in 52.66 seconds, fastest in the Big Ten in 2013. She won her 200 heat in 23.43, fast enough for second overall.
Spencer is seeking a fourth successive 200/400 double victory, including twice indoors. She had to record a time in the 400 to qualify for the West Regional and have a chance to defend her NCAA title.
Illini freshman Morolake Akinosun, ranked first in the 100 at 11.29, had the fourth-fastest qualifying time, 11.62. She was fourth, at 23.46, in the 200.
Illinois wasn’t confined to the sprints.
Samantha Murphy, fourth in the NCAA indoors, won her 800 heat in 2:05.04, fastest in the Big Ten this season. Also advancing in the 800 were Amanda Duvendack and Ahlivia Spencer. Katie Porada led wire to wire in winning her 1,500 heat in 4:26.40.
The Illini coped on a day when temperatures were in the mid-50s under overcast skies.
“Our climate hasn’t been great. Not that you’re used to it because you never get used to it,” Buford-Bailey said. “They’re trying to come here and win a championship.”
Pamilton has fastest 400
The 400 brought good and bad for the Illini men.
Indoor champion Stephon Pamilton had the top time, 46.32, but second-ranked Juan Green failed to make the final. Green, a freshman, ran his heat out of the unfavorable Lane 9 and was 13th overall in 47.68.
Pamilton also qualified in the 200, eighth at 21.08, just behind teammate Brandon Stryganek, 21.07.
Illinois’ Vanier Joseph, seeded first in the 110 hurdles at 13.59, had the top time of 14.04. The Illini were also fastest in the 400 relay trials at 39.78.
Advancing to finals in a deep middle-distance field were Ryan Lynn, 1:48.87 in the 800, and Irish freshman Liam Markham, 3:46.94 in the 1.500.
Illinois’ only Saturday scorers were German graduate student Jannis Toepfer, fifth in the steeplechase in 8:55.18, and St. Thomas More grad Brandon Noe, seventh in the discus at 183-4.