*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – Right from the start of the 2020 indoor season, the University of Chicago women's track & field team was building to something special. The Maroons returned a large contingent of experienced and elite athletes across a bevy of events, and that depth ranked them consistently in the top five of the weekly national poll.
Once February arrived, it jumped to a whole new level. In the space of two weeks, UChicago's Laura Darcey and Isabel Maletich submitted two of the best field performances in the history of NCAA Division III.
Both athletes had high expectations heading into the season. In her senior year, Darcey was already a four-time All-American and seven-time national qualifier whose all-around skills allowed her to contribute a boatload of team points in the jumps, sprints and hurdles. Maletich was coming off a sensational rookie year in 2019, where she won the national championship in the indoor long jump and nearly repeated that feat by taking runner-up in the outdoor long jump. Head Coach Chris Hall – in his 19th year leading the Maroons – felt that both athletes were focused on winning NCAA titles in 2020.
As the weeks progressed, Darcey made continual strides up the national rankings in multiple events. "No doubt Laura came into this season knowing it was her last and had an elevated focus and desire to go out with a special season," Hall said. "She began the season in PR fitness and just got better each week."
It all came together on February 7 at the Windy City Rumble. Competing inside the familiar confines of Henry Crown Field House, Darcey dominated the pentathlon, winning four of the five events. From the very first race, the UChicago coaching staff knew an exceptional performance was in the making.
"When Laura got off to a fast start with a lifetime-best performance in the 60-meter hurdles, we knew she was going to have a great day," said Hall. "I had never seen her so dialed in for the length of the event. As coaches, we were certainly getting more and more excited throughout the day. The pentathlon was contested on a different day than the rest of the meet – it wasn't a packed facility so I was tweeting results and updating the team. More of them matriculated to the facility to watch. It was a lot of fun."
The numbers rolled in – 9.11 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles; 1.74 meters in the high jump; 10.24 meters in the shot put; 5.65 meters in the long jump; and 2:28.24 in the 800 meters. Her final score – a jaw-dropping 3,794 points. It was the fourth-best score in the history of NCAA Division III. Her 1.74-meter high jump also set a new school record. A few days later, the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) named her the NCAA Division III National Athlete of the Week.
A mere two weeks passed before the Maroons had another historic day to celebrate. Henry Crown Field House would be the venue once again for the Margaret Bradley Invitational on February 22. The stage was set for Maletich.
The Maroon sophomore was already the top jumper in the nation with her prowess in the long jump and triple jump, and Hall believed she was only scratching the surface during her first-year campaign that was slowed by injury. A healthy second year with more time to devote to training was paying dividends.
"I was getting feedback from Coach McQuality about how she was progressing and what he saw each day," Hall said. "Coach Q was consistently telling me that she was about to do something special and she met those expectations each week in competition. Isabel has a really good work ethic so just having the opportunity to work out consistently was the biggest reason for her growth."
Going into the Margaret Bradley Invite, Maletich owned the triple jump school record with the nation's best mark of 12.40 meters. But she blew that number away with a monstrous leap of 12.58 meters – the fifth-best triple jump in NCAA Division III history.
"That was just a great day for our team," Hall said. "We had a number of great performances so the facility was already pretty electric. When the performance was announced, our team absolutely exploded. Music was playing and the team was dancing and just having a great time."
Consistent greatness characterized the season for both athletes. Darcey's upward ascendance featured three new personal bests in the last two meets of the season (60-meter hurdles, long jump, 60 meters). Maletich surpassed 5.70 meters in the long jump in five of her six indoor meets, and went over 12 meters in the triple jump in her final three meets.
"It is really hard to perform at such a high level each and every week, especially at a place like UChicago where they have stressful weeks in school or are perhaps just a bit under the weather," said Hall. "Clearly the most important aspect is day-to-day training and that translates into competition. Coach Q certainly did a great job of planning their schedules and keeping them healthy and focused throughout."
By season's end, Maletich was the runaway national leader in the long jump and triple jump, while Darcey ranked first in the pentathlon, third in the high jump and seventh in the long jump. Darcey was eventually named USTFCCCA National Women's Field Athlete of the Year for the 2020 indoor season. Maletich captured USTFCCCA Midwest Region Women's Field Athlete of the Year honors.
Despite the cancellations of the NCAA Championships, both athletes were feted with four total All-American honors. "I would say they were headed to the two best indoor seasons anyone at UChicago has had in my time here," Hall said.