The Internet Home of Track & Field

115th Penn Relays

Thu.-Sat., April 23-25, 2009

Franklin Field, Philadelphia PA

Top questions, athletes, and things that make Penn special

By SteveU

5 Big Questions

1. How fast will Robby Andrews run and how many teams can he catch?

Citing his desire to run with and for his teammates, Manalapan NJ sr Robby Andrews has forsaken the open mile for the DMR.  His team, however, has only run 10:30, more than 20 seconds behind top seed West Windsor Plainsboro North, which has run 10:07 twice indoors this year.  While it’s not hard to imagine Andrews’ teammates improving, it’s still likely that when Andrews gets the baton, he’ll be at least 15 seconds down, maybe more.

Although he broke indoor records at 1000 and 800 this past winter, Andrews still doesn’t have a sub-4:10 1600 or mile to his credit.  While this isn’t an open race, this will give him a clear shot to at least get four timed laps in that exceeds that barrier.  There can’t be a lot of strategy here.  Andrews will have to run a hard, even pace to catch as many teams as he can.  If he can run 4:03-4:08, say, one can imagine Manalapan getting under 10:15, maybe 10:10.  That’s still not going to be enough to win, or even come close to winning as WWPN should be at least under 10:05 and maybe 10:00.  But with the second seed coming in with a 10:14 best, Andrews should get into a fight for second or third.

The last time we saw this was Craig Forys of Colts Neck NJ chasing teams two years ago.  He ran 4:04 and made up a lot of ground, but his team didn’t win … and WWPN is better than anyone else was that year.

2. How will the latest Albemarle vs. Morris Hills 4x800 showdown play out?

Some would say this isn’t a showdown; after all, Albemarle VA’s boys 4x800 absolutely rolled to victory at NIN, 7:36.99 to 7:43.91.  That followed Albemarle’s wins over the NJ power in the previous day’s DMR and the Millrose 4x800.  But it says something that Morris Hills is choosing the 4x800 instead of the DMR, and also that these teams can actually afford to focus on each other when there are a handful of Jamaican teams that have run in the 7:40s, too – the US teams are that good this year.

The key for Morris Hills is that this time they are employing the services of Sean Pohorence, who has 1:55 skills.  If the new quartet has a good day, they could push sub-7:40.  Of course, Albemarle, while having a set lineup, has 7:35 or better potential.  But look for Morris Hills to at least close the gap, possibly in half, and look for a US 1-2 finish.

3. Who will win the deep, deep, deep girls 3000?

This race won’t get a lot of pre-meet attention, but it’s the deepest of all the distance races, boys or girls.  There’s 10 – count ‘em – 10 Foot Locker Finalists in the field, which is surely a record for a Penn individual race.

Not surprisingly, most of this talent is from the Northeast; indeed, eight of the 10 qualifiers from Foot Locker Northeast to FL Finals are in the race.  That includes FL NE champion Emily Jones, the next five behind her, and the 9th and 10th qualifiers.  Of course, the 9th happens to be Roslyn NY jr Emily Lipari, who happens to have finished 6th and 11th in the last two FL Finals and is coming off an indoor season where she won the NIN mile.

The other two FL Finalists in the race are Kim Spano, a North Mecklenburg NC sr, and Stephanie Morgan, a Barnesville OH sr who made it in 2007.

There’s a lot of different ways to look at the race.  Jones, a Bromfield MA sr, not only had that FL NE title, but is also the top returnee from last year’s 3k here in 2nd.  Yet she may not have as much momentum as some of the others from an “average” indoor finish and lack of a big start outdoors.  Suffern NY sr Shelby Greany ran 7th at FL Finals and was 2nd in the NIN 2-mile behind Jordan Hasay.  She also picked up a nice win last week over Aisling Cuffe in a 3200.  Then there’s Melanie Thompson, the Voorhees NJ sr who was 3rd here last year, 2nd in the NIN mile, and owns the best 3200 time in the field at 10:17.  Or consider Chelsea Ley, the Kingsway Regional NJ jr who won the 5K and 2M at NSIC, or Morgan, who won the mile last hear in 4:41.22.

In the end, though, look for Lipari, who gained a lot of confidence from her indoor title, has necessary experience at this distance, and will be the fastest finisher off a solid pace.

4. Can Solomon Haile rip a really fast one?

The Sherwood MD senior did almost everything you could ask last fall in terms of performance on the XC course.  He won every race he ran, including the Foot Locker Finals, and while NXN champ Reed Connor certainly would get plenty of votes, you could argue that Haile was the harrier in the country last fall.

Indoors, Haile had a very low key season until nationals, when he set a short-lived US record for 5k (14:22.88) and ran 9:02 for 2M at NSIC.  But the thing was, while both of those races were strong, dominant performances, neither of them were truly “fast” – not in the league of other nation-leading prep distance runners of the past two years.  The 14:22 was certainly the superior mark, but that record was not close to the value of, say, the US indoor record in the 2M of 8:40 by Gerry Lindgren.

To really be mentioned among the all-timers, Haile needs to throw down at least a mid-8:40s in the deuce.  Of course here, he’ll be racing a 3k, so a mark around 8:10 or better would establish him there.  Given that he won’t have a lot of competition at that level, will he push for a really fast time?  Above all, Haile likes to win and times don’t concern him as much as victories.  Look for a more typical Penn winning time of 8:20 or just under – and wait and see if Haile will get another chance outdoors to really throw down.

5. Which relay will the Eleanor Roosevelt girls really excel in this year and have the best chance of winning?

The first and most obvious answer to that is this: Not the 4x800.  Unless the ER quartet shocks with some huge PRs and top girl Amirah Johnson gets back under 2:10, Roosevelt probably will fight to break 9:00 this year, not 8:50.  They don’t have the small army of 2:08-2:13 talent they’ve had in the past.

Of course, as it’s been well-proven already this year, they DO have the horses at 4x400 and 4x100.  As good as their 4x400 has been, in winning NIN and leading the nation outdoors, this year’s gang still has a few big seconds to go before they get down to the teams of the last two years, which have claimed back to back Penn titles.  Remember, those teams ran 3:37, more than once; this year’s crew is still at 3:40.  The problem is, Jamaica has three schools that have run 3:34-36 this year.  Roosevelt will probably run at least 3:38, but the win streak will end.

Thanks to the addition of Auriyelle Scott, the ER 4x100 crew is better than ever at the school.  No ER 4x1 team has ever run under 45.5 before, but even not having perfected their handoffs, they are down to 45.38.  Holmwood, with a 45.02 best, is the team to beat.  The thing is, they also had a 2nd group of younger girls also go 45.04 in the Jamaican Champs, so they can run under 45.  Roosevelt can at least scare sub-45.  Look for a close battle with the Jamaicans prevailing, but ER doing the American hopes proud with another school record.

5 Athletes to Watch

1. Jillian Smith – The Southern Region NJ sr is always in the news, it seems, whether it’s because of her performances or when her potential schedule has come into question because of injuries or other factors, such as when she short-circuited her XC season last fall or when it was reported that she had walked off the track with an injury a few weeks ago. 

Earlier this week, it was announced that Smith would indeed run in the DMR.  Even a recently-injured Smith should be good for sub-4:50 on her team’s anchor and be able to hold off the pack for a title.  A really super time, like sub-11:40, is probably not in the cards, though.

2. Nick Vena – It’s more than a year into the Nick Vena era … and the thrill hasn’t worn off.  If anything, he’s helped inspired the competition.  This is shaping up to be the best year ever in the shot put, with already a record four 70-footers, indoor and outdoor combined.  Vena was the first of the quartet to get the mark, with his US soph record 70-05 at NSIC.  Since then, Stephen Saenz (indoor the next day at NIN), Hayden Baillio, and Mason Finley have all surpassed that mark.

Vena won’t claim to be motivated by those guys, or by the different US soph, state, or meet records within his reach this weekend.  It’s just all about doing his best and self-improvement.  He won’t be pushed like he was last year, when now-graduated fellow New Jersey putter Mike Alleman gave him one of many great battles, but don’t be surprised if Vena joins the outdoor 70-foot club.

3. Gavyn Nero – It’s not often a non-American is favored in the boys mile, but that’s the case this year with this superb athlete from Trinidad and Tobago.  Most remember that last year Cory Leslie OH outkicked Robby Andrews NJ in 4:12 and change, but how many remember Nero in fourth, beating standouts like Kyle Merber, Vince McNally and Doug Smith?

Now Nero has improved dramatically, with an impressive 3:47/1:51 1500/800 double at the Carifta Championships.  The 1500 puts him in a position to be able to run 4:05 or 4:06 for the full mile, something that no one else in the field is likely to do.  Look for a new Penn record from Nero.

4. Chelsey Sveinsson – Although she hasn’t beaten her mile PR from this meet last year, yet, this is not the same Chelsey Sveinsson that fans saw in 2008 here.  The Greenhills TX soph has learned how to race and win, something she was not as adept at last year when she hammered from the gun, only to be passed by the Ohio 1-2 punch of Stephanie Morgan and Emily Infeld.

Morgan is not back to defend her title in this event and if Chelsey wants a fast time, she’ll have to make the race.  If she does try that, however, look for an intelligent start that will still have her looking strong at the end.  Morgan’s 4:41.22 is a tall order, but if conditions are good, Sveinsson should come close and possible get it.

5. Anthony Kostelec – After Robby Andrews, this Albemarle VA junior is probably the next most important athlete to watch in the boys distance relays.  Kostelec’s 1:51.4 anchor on his team’s 4x800 put the capper on the 7:36.99 USR, an amazing performance that blew away the previous mark by more than five seconds.

With his incredibly lean physique, upright running style, and sideburns that go on forever, there is no one on the track that looks like “AK-47,” or “The Squirrel Chaser” – just two of many nicknames by which he is known.  It won’t be easy for Albemarle to top their USR indoors, but they have 7:35-or-better potential.  Kostelec hasn’t run a fast open 800 yet, but he did win a recent 400 in 49-low.  He may have to dip under 1:50 for Albemarle to earn a high spot on the all-time list; that may be more likely to come in June.

8 Things That Make Penn Special

(Two years ago, I came up with "7 Things That Make Penn Special," which were a list of aspects
of this meet that made it different than any other. With a few edits, here it is again.)

1. The Tradition – Any time a meet’s been going on a gazillion years – ok, 115, to be
exact – you’ve got to have tradition. But tradition’s not just a function of age. It’s just
something you feel when you enter the stadium, that sense of history, that you are a part
of something that’s taken place for all of time, yet is still as exciting and vibrant as it’s
always been. The atmosphere is like nowhere else in track (even without the people,
which I’ll get to), the way the brick edifice encases the field (kind of an old-school
Camden Yards thing, if you’re a baseball fan).

I think this is the only track meet that when I’ve walked on the field, I feel like I’m in a
professional sports facility, like Yankee Stadium or something. It’s a special feeling.

2. The Program – I don’t mean the publication you can get about the meet which is like
nothing else in the sport (more on that later, too). I mean the way the meet is scheduled.
For all the events and all the kids (plus collegians and pros) that you’ve got to run
through, I think they’ve done a pretty darn good job of pacing the meet.

Of course, there’s nothing like watching 40+ heats of the 4x4 or 4x1 to set the standard
for relays. But what I’m talking about is the blending of these relays, the buildup to the
“Championship of America” races, the mixing of the prep, college, and elite events, and
the way the whole thing builds to a crescendo on Saturday – even with all the drama the
two days before.

They’ve done a good job of making you feel like the events really are “The Championship
of America,” and instituting the USA vs. The World relays some years ago was a good
move to bring the meet to a new level.

3. The Jamaicans – What other meet can you go to and feel the energy of an international
rivalry (even to the point of feeling outnumbered in one’s own country)? It’s Penn. The
Jamaican teams bring a special vibe here, but more than anything it’s the fans, especially
Saturday, that just create a wild atmosphere unlike anything in the sport. The roar of the
crowd as a Jamaican relay anchor brings it home for a dramatic victory is a unique
experience, that’s for sure.

While the fans from Jamaica don’t have as much to cheer about in the professional ranks,
they have dominated the prep relays, from 4x800 on down, over the years (especially
recently). One wonders if “we” can get as boisterous if an American high school can pull
the upset this year in one of these relays. Maybe we’ll find out.

4. The Prep Distance Trifectas – Within the energy of the whole meet, there’s something
separate and special about that time of the day Thursday and Friday when you’ve got the
prep mile, 3k, and DMR in short order. Twilight is beginning to fall at that time and you
sort of feeling like the whole day has been building to this. If you’re a distance fan,
there’s a sustained drama and excitement during this stretch that has its own special,
indescribable feeling.

Unfortunately (if you’re a Penn distance fan), some of the vibe of the Thursday night
distance carnival has diminished over the years as many of the elites have sought the
Stanford meets and other venues. But that’s for the collegians and the elites. The prep
distance events remain strong.

5. The Journey to the Throw Venues – You can go to the outskirts of the stadium and see
them. They don’t seem that far away. But getting to where they’re throwing the javelin
and discus is a true adventure. Us hardcore fans – even me in only my 4th Penn – can
smugly say that you haven’t completely “done Penn” unless you’ve ventured out to the
throwing venues.

How do you get there? Oh, you just go out of the stadium, over to and across the bridge,
down the street and across, around that building over there, down the stairs, across the
railroad tracks, through the tunnel, through the woods, over that mountain pass – ok, I’m
going a bit too far, but you get the picture.

But you can’t just not go, otherwise you might miss a new record or US leader by Fawn Miller or Justin Shirk, or …

6. The Program (2) – NOW we’re talking about The “Penn Relays Program.” As Walt
Murphy says, “It’s the best in the sport.” As the kids on the DyeStat message board say,
“QFT” (quoted for truth) or just “troof.” It’s packed with all the history of more than
100 years of incredible track moments. It has EVERYTHING. You might be able to get
through some of it during some of those relays, if you really want to, but better to spend a
few hours with it after the meet to really enjoy. A true track nut keeper.

7. The Split Crew – Ok, this one’s kind of personal, because how many fans or
competitors will really get to experience this? But if you’re steveu, you go hang out with
the split crew at the meet, parked up about halfway and in the middle of the finish area.
These are many of the godfathers of the sport, taking the splits of the top relay races and
feeding the info to the announcers, and recording it for posterity. For someone like me,
who’s been reading track publications for 30 years, it’s a who’s who of the sport up
there. Here’s to my fellow track journalists!!

8.  The "Whhoooo" Factor - All right, last year I was told I missed this, so
it has to be added in, even if it breaks up the Lucky 7s. This is really a "you have to be there"
type of thing, but I think it was Bill Cosby in one of his famous comedy routines from years back,
describing his experience here when he competed for Temple, decades ago, who quantified this.
It's the noise, the hooting and hollering, that the crowd makes, in an ever-growing volume, as a race
(particularly a relay) picks up in intensity (most often on the last lap). In less intense instances, it's
more like a "Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!" as things are picking up before the climax of a race. But in the
end, it's one, long, ever-increasing hoot that sometimes just turns into a full-blooded roar if the race
is extra special. Two years ago, for example, the Nellum anchor on the boys 4x400 turned from a "whooo" to
a roar, because it was just too much for a mere "whooo."