Since 1988, the women have won 10 of 13 conference championships. But the last two years have culminated in a third- and second-place finish -- respectable, but below UNC's standards.
"For the women, really, we're pretty doggone strong in all areas," UNC coach Dennis Craddock said. "I think the depth is back. We want to rule the roost again."
But to reassert their control on the ACC, the women will have to outrun rivals Clemson and Georgia Tech.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they're stacked in every event.
Senior sprinter Crystal Cox returns to the team after missing last season for medical reasons. In 1998, Cox finished third in the USA Junior Nationals and holds the fifth-best time in UNC history in the indoor 400-meter run.
"The way she's practicing and running, her outdoor season is going to be tremendous," hurdler Lutisha Shittu said.
But Cox's teammates are just as potent. Shittu is the returning ACC champion in the 100-meter hurdles, and senior Joy Ganes is a former conference champion and All-American in the high jump.
"I think we already have (a shot at winning the ACC)," long jumper Lashawn Gee said. "We have new freshmen that are really sensational."
Freshmen sprinters and hurdlers Tiffany Flomo, Anissa Gainey, Nneka Martin and Summer Knowles have already caught the eye of their ACC foes.
Like the sprints, the distance team is also a formidable squad. It will be led by seniors Trish Nervo and Kim Timberlake, who paced the cross county team to a second-place finish at the Southeast Regionals this year.
Last year Nervo qualified for the NCAAs and placed second in the ACC championships in the 3000.
"When we were winning the conference championship, we had good depth," Craddock said. "Having a little bit of success indoor will mean a lot for outdoor."
The men's team lacks the depth of the women's. After winning the conference in 1999, UNC dropped to fourth in 2000.
Not only is the team missing its usual contribution from football players, but sickness and injuries have also decimated its ranks. This is particularly a problem for the distance events. Juniors Zach and Dash Victor and Kris Kurjiaka are all battling injuries. Senior Nick Iauco was ill during the indoor season and UNC hopes to have him back for when outdoor track starts.
"We got all the events covered pretty well except the distance," Craddock said. "Sometimes mileage kicks in and breaks them down. I think we'll be better outdoor. I guess the question is, 'Will other teams be better?'"
The injury problem is magnified considering Clemson, last year's ACC champ, is both talented and deep. Craddock said the Tigers are easily the best team in the conference. He said UNC would be fighting Florida State and Georgia Tech for second.
But UNC will get a boost in the field events. Unlike indoor track, the outdoor season features javelin competition, one of UNC's strongest events. Senior javelin thrower Kestutis Celiesius placed third nationally and earned All-America honors in 2000. Senior Jeff Ellis and junior Ian Douglas are the leaders of a powerful group of 800 runners and shot puters.
But North Carolina's season may hinge on the legs of injured runners.
"How we recover from the injuries will determine how we do in the season," said Kurjiaka, who missed the indoor season with a leg injury. We're going to be getting a lot of people back. The people coming back are going to make the difference."
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