Each stride, step and leap became more important for the Michigan women’s track and field team this weekend. With each one came more confidence, more experience on the same track before the Big Ten Indoor Championships.
And each athlete who made the trip to Geneva, Ohio did enough to keep the 20th-ranked Wolverines in good position as she turned their focus to their biggest meet of the season.
Thirteen athletes set personal bests over the weekend in the non-scoring SPIRE Invitational, highlighted by sophomore Aaron Howell’s first-place finish in the pentathlon.
“You could go up and down the line, which is why I’m happy,” said Michigan coach James Henry. “You can’t pick one or two kids because you’re going to leave out four or five. With that number of improvements, you have team improvements.”
Howell, competing in the pentathlon for the first time this season, didn’t miss a beat as she finished with 4,115 points. Breaking her old personal record of 3,908 points, she finished first in the high jump and long jump while taking second in the shot put and 60-meter hurdles.
Originally slated to compete in her first pentathlon of the season at the Big Ten Championships, Howell outscored the next-best competitor by 91 points.
“It was kind of nerve-racking, but I’m really happy I got into it at this point,” Howell said. “The biggest thing (before the championships) is to stay calm so you aren’t nervous.”
Added Henry: “It gave her the level of confidence that she can go into the championships and do well, as well as try to make her stake in participating at the NCAA national level. This is something that’s going to help her develop as an athlete.”
The depth across the Wolverines this year has helped Howell, who has been training separately in each event rather than training solely for the pentathlon. Her training has received a boost from runners such as redshirt sophomore Gina McNamara in the 800-meter run and sophomore Sami Mitchell in the 60-meter hurdles.
The pair of McNamara and Mitchell also finished with personal bests on the day, as McNamara ran 2:12.33 and Mitchell finished in 8.46.
Howell wasn’t alone in her first-place finish, as junior Danielle Pfeifer beat out her teammate, senior Chinyere Onimo, in the 600-meter run. Both runners also finished with personal records, as Pfeifer’s time of 1:31.14 bested Onimo by .26 seconds.
“It was another step in the right direction,” Henry said. “More and more people are jumping on board and improving, and that’s what I want to see.
“You don’t want to go in (to the championships) with doubt in your mind. You don’t necessarily want to go in without an accomplishment, since you have better skill.”
Junior Cindy Ofili was the only Wolverine to compete outside of the SPIRE Invitational, racing at the Don Kirby Collegiate Invitational in New Mexico to race against faster competition.
Ofili, who holds the second-fastest mark in the nation for the 60-meter hurdles, finished second in the event with a time of 8.13. She finished just outside of qualifying for the finals of the 60-meter dash and will be a favorite in both events in two weeks.
And after this weekend, she may not be the only athlete in a good position to win.
“I don’t how we’re going to stack up against the other teams, but I do know that our team is continuing to improve and continuing to get better,” Henry said, “and I feel confident in what we’ve done so far.”