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Nike Outdoor Nationals
June 18-20, 2009 at Greensboro NC
DyeStat on-site

New Bern NC Relays
By Dave Devine

No more doubting New Bern
Saturday night was a reminder of how good the relay squad has been

4x400 Race Video

by Dave Devine, DyeStat senior editor
Photos by John Nepolitan

It is the curse of the great ones. 

The bane of every rare athletic talent with the ability to make the astonishing look commonplace.  

After a time, they lose the capacity to amaze. 

We begin to take them for granted, hand them their victories as a matter of fact, concede their medals and their laurels in advance. 

It is the plight of Lance Armstrong in the Pyrenees.  Tiger Woods at Augusta.  Michael Phelps in the waters of Beijing.  The Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan at the helm.    

Turns out there are only so many ways to write a story about greatness and grit, about a team or an athlete rising—yet again, one more time, another year in a row—to the occasion.  You can only spill so much ink on the awesome.  Our collective attention span swivels elsewhere, seeking out the usurper, the challenger, the next big thing.  Americans love a success story, as long as it is limited, an underdog made good or a champion unseated.  But sustained excellence?  The appearance of invincibility? That earns begrudging respect, some devoted followers, and, in certain pockets of the population, a slow-simmering and incongruous resentment. 

Fed a steady diet of consistent accomplishments—some jaw-dropping, some merely excellent—the cynics develop instead an appetite for ferreting out weaknesses.

Finding the misstep.  Identifying the miscalculation. The burnout point. The season in decline.

So it was with the young men who make up the relay team known as Track Eastern Carolina, hailing from New Bern High School in the eponymous North Carolina town.  After a year in which they’d set a national 4x400 relay record indoors and a national 1600 Sprint Medley record outdoors, they arrived in Greensboro, North Carolina, for the 2009 Nike Outdoor Nationals having earned the respect of high school track fans across the country, but also having drawn a nattering crowd of doubters and detractors. They’d made no secret of their goal to take down the national 4x400 record set by Hawthorne CA in 1985, and they traveled the country seeking races that might provide the best opportunity.  They entered college and open meets in North Carolina.  An open race in Eugene, Oregon.  A set-up race against an All-Star high school team in New Mexico.  Each time, they fell well short of the 3:07.40 record.

Each time, the track message boards lit up with whispers of weakness.

They’re running out of gas.  They’re turning their season into a sideshow.  They’ll never get under 3:10, much less 3:08.

The record, so went the conventional wisdom, had become a chimera, its pursuit both draining and quixotic.

So as the Nike Outdoor Nationals got underway last Thursday, the relayers of Track Eastern Carolina were certainly considered favorites, but the buzz was elsewhere.  The medals may have been conceded, but the capacity to amaze had worn away.

But here's the thing-- remember Armstrong in the Pyrenees?  Crashing and rising to win the 15th Stage of the 2003 Tour de France?  Remember a surgery-hobbled Tiger Woods claiming a sudden death playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008?  Or Phelps winning the 100-meter butterfly by a fingernail for his 7th gold medal last summer?  Or Jordan dropping 55 points on the Knicks at the Garden during his 1995 comeback?

Why are those moments indelible?  Because they woke us from the complacency.  Forced us to stop taking greatness for granted.

This past weekend the relay teams of New Bern NC turned a similar trick.  In a four-act performance which made believers of everyone in the house, even the cynics, they were nothing short of spectacular.  Through two scorching days of track and field they won four gold medals, which alone was impressive, if somewhat expected.  But on a Saturday which represented the final hours of their career together (twins Andrew and Anthony Hendrix and Daishawn Styron are all seniors), New Bern set a national record in the 800 Sprint Medley and ran the second fastest 4x400 time in high school history.  The latter effort was a virtuoso, nearly-solo performance which concluded the meet and scintillated a sun-drunk crowd at the end of a long day of track and field.

Two golds on Friday kick off the weekend

The weekend started just before noon on Friday with a businesslike victory in the 4x200. Track EC’s 1:24.80 clocking provided a comfortable win over runner-up Kroy TC’s (York IL) 1:26.05.  The standard relay line-up of Fuquawn Greene, Miles Sparks, Andrew and Anthony Hendrix was altered slightly, as short sprint specialist Daishawn Styron was inserted for Sparks in the 4x2.  The New Bern crew would use the same combination to even more devastating effect the following day in the 800 Sprint Medley.

Five hours after the 4x200 win, Greene, Sparks and the Hendrix twins took the line for the 1600 Medley relay and made quick work of that race as well.  The 3:24.54 they laid down was no threat to their own US record in the event from earlier in the spring, but more than sufficient to hold off Buffalo MN and anchor Zach Mellon’s 1:49.49 800 split.

Evident in the outward appearance of those two Friday victories may have been at least a kernel of the fuel which has fed the critics. The wins were businesslike.  They were the fourth and fifth national relay titles won by New Bern this year, counting the three from Nike Indoor Nationals.  Carried out with precision and purpose, they seemed, to the casual observer, to be absent any sort of joy and celebration. As if the Things to Do List for Friday June 19, 2009 read:
  1. Win national title in 4x200 relay
  2. Win national title in 1600 Medley relay
  3. Go back to hotel and rest for Saturday
Can you blame them though?  Energy spent on celebration is energy wasted when your plans are this ambitious.  And when you’ve been to the top of the podium enough times, you can be forgiven for failing to summon delirious excitement on each successive trip.  There’s something to be said for acting like you’ve been there before.  Besides, Saturday’s To Do List held bigger surprises; the fans in Greensboro just didn’t know it yet.

Saturday opens with a stunner

According to Track EC coach “Big Dave” Simpson, when the relay unit arrived at the meet Saturday morning, “I told them, we’ve been chasing these other national records the whole year, but we came here and didn’t let anyone know that we had intentions of breaking this [800 Medley] record.  We kept it down and didn’t tell anybody about it.  We just told everybody that we’re going to go out here and run.”

The crowds were small for the morning race, but the New Bern crew treated those in attendance to the only national record of the weekend.  Through legs of 100-, 100-, 200- and 400-meters, the quartet of Styron, Greene, Andrew Hendrix and Anthony Hendrix displayed stickwork which seemed superior to other high-profile relays they’ve contested.

“We got out of the car,” Simpson recalled afterwards, “and I said, ‘Hey listen, I’m telling you all, we can do it, we can set the national record, but it’s got to be the handoffs.’  And they perfected those handoffs.”

The first three legs provided Anthony Hendrix a sizable cushion, one he protected through a 46.39 closer to a new national record of 1:28.20.  The time took down the 2007 mark of 1:28.43 recorded by Long Beach Poly CA at the Arcadia Invitational in California, a race in which 400 star Bryshon Nellum split 45.6 on anchor.

Indeed, one of the knocks against New Bern’s outdoor 4x400 record pursuit was that none of the legs seemed to possess the sort of flat-out 400 speed needed to push under 3:10.  Hawthorne, it was pointed out, had talent capable of splitting sub-45 seconds.  Here was Part 1 of New Bern’s answer to that question.

“I knew I could run 46,” Anthony Hendrix said after the record race, “because I’d run that last summer, but I haven’t run the 400 as much this year.  Today was just a good day to come out here and do it. We just were going out there to win and run a time.  We were just trying to do what we had to, to get it done.”

As the team awaited their 800 Medley awards on the infield, a reflective Coach Simpson suggested that the record-setting race proved that the trips and the travel and the high-profile record attempts had been worth it.  The experience, he said, accumulated and built towards the perfection on display Saturday morning.

“Those kids, it’s been four great years of them doing everything—” he said, voice catching as he lowered his head to choke back tears. “Everything we’ve asked, man.  They got out here and got it done.  There’s nobody that has the mental attitude of these boys.  They’re just mentally in another world.”

Saturday night, they seemed to be running in another world.

One for the ages

After a highlight reel day which included a shot put battle well over 70 feet, pole vaulter Jack Whitt taking shots at the national record of 18-3, hurdler Reggie Wyatt running 49.78 in the 400H while stuttering at the final barrier, and the deepest boys Distance Medley Relay in history, with seven teams at 10-flat or better, the Track EC 4x400 squad somehow managed to amp up the energy and steal the show.

Leadoff runner Anthony Hendrix ended the race before it had really begun, blasting through the first leg to give Miles Sparks an ample margin at the first handoff.  Sparks, who’d watched from the sidelines while his teammates snatched the 800 Medley record in the morning with Styron in the line-up, was one of the revelations of the night.  Rested and ready, he accelerated through the curve like he was shot from a cannon (left), blowing the race wide open down the backstretch.  By the time Fuquawn Greene snatched the baton for the third leg, it was New Bern against the clock for all the chips on the table.

The fact that they were taking this final shot in front of a North Carolina crowd made all the difference for Greene.

“It does feel nice to do it at home,” he said, acknowledging they had few diehard supporters in Oregon or New Mexico. “Everybody here supports us.  You can hear the people screaming here, that was our motivation to keep going.”

Indeed, the crowd was raucous, perhaps inspired by the sense that something rare was unfolding on the track.

Andrew Hendrix was a man possessed on the anchor, flickered under the lights down the backstretch and angling through the final turn with such velocity that talk on the infield turned to Hawthorne’s hallowed mark.  Here was Part 2 of New Bern's argument for having the wheels to challenge Hawthorne, and it would exceed nearly everyone’s expectations.

Oh my God, people were saying, they might get it.

Hendrix barreled home, the fluorescent green digits on the trackside clock flipping inexorably onward: 3:02…3:03…3:04…3:0—

"As I crossed that line I saw 3:07,” a breathless Hendrix said shortly afterwards, “and I was like, We got this, baby!"

Alas, the clock had one more cruel flip up its sleeve.

3:08.05 it read when all was said and done, short of Hawthorne’s 1985 time, but still the #2 time in high school history and a mark significantly better than most supposed New Bern was capable of running.  Hendrix had split 45.87 on anchor.

In the long minutes afterwards, “Big Dave” was wandering the infield with a dazed smile permanently affixed to his face, as was co-coach and team benefactor Nick Sparks.  Sparks’ son, Miles, was doubled over and losing his lunch as a result of his heroic second leg, while Greene and the Hendrix twins were displaying the sort of exuberance and boyish glee which seemed to be missing from previous big time races.  There was nothing business-like about the joyful, reeling victory lap they took with an American flag uprooted from the infield and a North Carolina flag borrowed from the bleachers (below).  Nothing cursory or reserved about the half hour lovefest with friends and fans and complete strangers that took place on the football field as meet volunteers packed up around them.

With the final act completed, Simpson addressed the criticism and second-guessing his team endured. “Everybody wants to know, Are they doing the wrong things?” he said. “But we tried to calculate, and do the right things, and all of it came together today.  It’s not only athletic abilities; the twins had to make sure they got all their graduation requirements together at the end and they dug down and got it.  Fuquawn …man, everything he’s been though.  Even with Miles…he’s a rich kid, you know?  What’s the motivation for him?  He goes out and gives us 47.7, his best split all year. They’re just some great, great kids. ”

This was a team at the top of its game, exceeding expectations, carving their names into the record books and the memories of anyone fortunate enough to witness their final act.

This was, for high school track fans, Armstrong in the Pyrenees.  Woods at Torrey Pines.  Phelps by a fingernail in the Watercube.  Jordan dropping 55 in the Garden.

A great team—an all-time team—reminding us not to take greatness for granted.

Seven national titles in one year.  Six US#1 relay marks and two US#1 individual marks. Three national records.  And the closest shave Hawthorne High’s 4x400 record has had in 24 years.

Fuquawn Greene, Miles Sparks, Daishawn Styron, Andrew Hendrix and Anthony Hendrix.

Remember the names.  It’s possible you won’t see their like again for a very long time.