CHAPEL HILL—In a fieldhouse decked out with Tar Heel decorations, one might have expected an intimidated Duke team. But the Blue Devils infiltrated enemy territory undaunted by the building’s overwhelming “Carolina blue,” heading home to Durham with a successful day in the books.
At Saturday’s Dick Taylor Carolina Challenge inside Eddie Smith Fieldhouse, graduate student Zach McWhorter and senior Brynn King both dominated the pole vault, headlining Duke’s performance along with sprinter Abby Geiser. All three athletes took first-place finishes, while the rest of the team put together a solid outing that included 11 top-three spots.
While some Blue Devils performed a step below their full potential, the performance of the team served as a testament to their individual dedication, as it was left to the athletes to stay in shape over winter break.
“A lot of the ones that are performing well, we’re able to see, ‘All right, you guys worked hard over the break,’” head coach Shawn Wilbourn said. “Some of the ones that didn’t perform as well that we brought over here, you know, we’ll go back and we’ll have a conversation with them. Most of them are younger, freshmen, and [they’ve] got to train a little bit.”
Even with slim representation making the trip down Tobacco Road—many Duke athletes sat this meet out—the Blue Devils were able to pull out a few victories on the track. Junior Halle Bieber took first in the preliminary competition for the women’s 60m, then landed third overall in the finals, coming in two spots behind Geiser. The two Blue Devils ran 7.52 and 7.47 seconds, respectively, with Geiser falling just short of meeting the Duke women’s all-time 60m record.
“Everything we do from here on until ACCs is getting them ready for ACCs,” said Wilbourn. “If they’re a field event athlete, we’re putting them in their events and fine tuning things. If they’re a sprinter … we’re putting them in a shorter race to work on their speed.”
With the exception of the shot put, the Duke women’s team boasted a top-three finish for every event in which they competed. This applied on the field as well as the track: Graduate student Sara Absten took 8.71 seconds to finish third in the 60m hurdle race; junior Brianna Smith landed No. 3 in her event, too, jumping 1.68m in the women’s high jump finals.
To wrap up the day on a high note, the women’s pole vaulters launched themselves to success, overwhelming their final competition with Blue Devil talent. First up was graduate student Charlotte Read, who introduced Duke to the event by sailing successfully over a 3.60m bar. Sophomore Paige Sommers followed her performance, getting over a slightly higher 3.85m with her pole.
Some of the best young talent on Duke’s long lineup this season lies with freshman Allison Neiders, who holds a Latvian national record for the pole vault. Neiders stumbled a couple of times to clear the bar at 3.95m—it took until her third run before she was able to land a clean launch. And though she could not quite claim a 4.05m pass this time, she still ended her Saturday with a second-place finish at her second-ever collegiate meet.
At the top of Saturday’s finishers—and at the top of the vault—was King, whose senior season is quickly shaping up to be her best yet. In her sophomore year, the Tomball, Tex., native sealed a 4.22m personal record in the event. Saturday, just two meets into the indoor season and following a long break from organized practice, King threatened to crack that record, falling just short with a final launch of more than 4.15 meters.
“I’m excited to see them come back off the break and kind of be where we were back in the fall,” said Wilbourn of Duke’s women’s pole vault group.
A school record was still tied, though—an old one, too. McWhorter managed to launch himself over a bar 5.33 meters in the air, matching a standard set by Justin Amezquita back in 2014. This flight, which he accomplished on his third attempt, also earned him first place in the men’s pole vault. According to Wilbourn, this achievement comes after McWhorter fit in just two practices with the Blue Devils.
The takeaway from the invitational in enemy territory is that Wilbourn’s women’s team is ready to compete for an indoor conference championship. Wilbourn believes that the men can put themselves up there, too.
“On the women’s team, our goal is to win … we’re better outdoors than we are indoors but our goal is to win both, on the women’s side,” Wilbourn said. “And on the men’s, each year, we’ve been getting better … and the goal is to be top five.”
The traveling squad was smaller for Saturday’s meet than it will be as the season progresses, as some athletes are still training to be ready for Friday and Saturday at the Hokie invitational.
In order for Duke to meet Wilbourn’s goals, it must continue to grow and become more comfortable in competition. When it came to competing in Chapel Hill, in that “Carolina blue” fieldhouse, Wilbourn’s team was unfazed.
“Especially for the women, we feel that we are so much better than [the Tar Heels]. And we have been. They haven’t beaten us in a conference meet, or in a dual meet, in a long time. Our girls know we’re coming over here and we’re just knocking the rest out.”
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