MEET PREVIEW: The Penn Relays (And A Personal Anecdote)
I’ll never forget that noise.
It’s been 14 years since I heard what sounded like more than 30,000 sirens descending from the heavens, but whenever the last weekend of April hits, that racket echoes in my ears.
You’ll never hear it quite like I did unless you’re inside Franklin Field for the Penn Relays, which began its 123rd installment on Wednesday in The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.
Then again, you’ll never hear it as loud as I did unless you’re on the track, running the 3rd leg of a 4×400 relay with a 50-meter lead and the entire field walks you down en masse. That happened to me on April 26, 2003.
Way back when I was a senior at Mount Pleasant High School (Wilmington, Del.) and the team’s top distance runner. I wasn’t anything special – 4:40.83 PR in the 1600 and 10:06.98 in the 3200 – but my coach historically rewarded the top distance runner with a spot on the 4×400 team at the prestigious meet.
I trained my butt off in the week leading up to the Penn Relays after he gave me the news and sprinkled speed work with the sprinters in between my usual distance routine. I thought I’d be ready to not make a fool of myself on the biggest stage I’d ever compete on at that point.
Boy was I wrong.
I don’t even remember my split.
To this day I still wonder if that track is truly 400 meters. It seemed like a mile.
I got the baton and for 100 meters, everything felt like it should – not great, but I managed.
Then those warnings started.
Before I knew it, I was staring at the backs of the 12 other guys who were behind me. I fought to get back on their heels, but didn’t have the speed to stay there.
When I handed the baton to our best quarter miler, I couldn’t get off the track fast enough.
The damage had already been done. We ended up dead last in 3:44.41. The winner finished nearly 21 seconds ahead of us (3:23.54).
That’s my lone experience as an athlete at the Penn Relays, but many others have already had or will have theirs this weekend when they take part in the largest and oldest track & field meet in the United States.
Here are some of the events we’re keeping an eye on in chronological order. Hopefully those competing fare better than I did during the High School Boys Northern Delaware 4×400 in 2003.
Women’s Distance Medley Championship of America
Thursday | 5:30 pm ET
Georgetown is the defending champion and hopes to capture its second watch in a row. The Hoyas are expected to use the lineup of Piper Donaghu (4:22.48 PR in 1500), Jody-Ann Knight (56.53 PR in 400), Emma Keenan (2:03.33 PR in 800) and Kennedy Weisner (4:37.92 PR in the mile).
It’s going to be tough for Georgetown to repeat, however, as it must fend off strong challenges from Villanova and Stanford. The Wildcats have won four of the past five watches and have the dangerous Siofra Cleirigh Buttner (2:02.37 PR in 800) and Angel Piccirillo (4:13.49 PR in 1500, 2:04.22 PR in 800) in their lineup. The Cardinal will likely feature talented freshman Christina Aragon (4:08.71 PR in 1500), Olivia Baker (2:01.02 PR in 800) and Elise Cranny, the national leader over 1500 meters.
Don’t count out Penn State either as its likely anchor in Danae Rivers, who finished 3rd in the NCAA indoor mile last month as a freshman and owns a mile PR of 4:32.55.
You’ll see a lot of these athletes and teams in the 4×1500 relay, which starts at 1:20 pm ET on Friday afternoon.
Women’s 5000 | Men’s 5000
Thursday, 8:45 pm ET | Thursday, 9:25 pm ET
Who said the Penn Relays is only about getting the baton around the track?
Both of the 5000-meter races on Thursday night have a chance to impress.
The women run first and there will be three top-30 finishers from the 2016 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in the mix: Clemson’s Grace Barnett (9th), NC State’s Rachel Koon (25th) and Michigan’s Gina Sereno (30th). Koon and Sereno have outdoor debuts under their belt at this distance (Sereno is currently 9th on the NCAA DI Descending Order List), while Barnett makes her outdoor debut this weekend.
We’ll also be able to see how two standouts at the NCAA Division III level fare. Johns Hopkins’ Felicia Koerner (16:41.95 PR) and St. Lawrence’s Megan Kellogg (16:38.29 PR) would be able to contend if given the change or would be front-runners in the second section.
The men’s race features NCAA DI standouts like Kentucky’s Jacob Thomson (13:53.49 PR), Michigan’s Aaron Baumgarten (14:00.64 PR) and the Iona duo of Kieran Clements (13:53.34 PR) and Chartt Miller (13:49.60 PR). Some of the best from NCAA DIII will be represented as RPI’s Benjamin Fazio and Widener’s Ernie Pitone (2016 NCAA DIII XC runner-up) are listed among entrants.
Women’s 4×100 Championship of America
Friday, 1 pm ET
Start lists weren’t released as of this writing, but it’s safe to assume Oregon will return to defend its title from one year ago. And as you know, the Ducks are even more dangerous in 2017.
Oregon broke the collegiate record in this event at the Florida Relays when Hannah Cunliffe, Makenzie Dunmore, Deajah Stevens and Ariana Washington got the baton around in 42.34. The Ducks lowered that time to 42.12 at the Mt. SAC Relays and were pushed to the brink by LSU, a team that is competing at the SEC Relays this weekend.
Whenever Oregon steps on the track for a 4×100 its own collegiate record is in danger and the Franklin Field record of 42.59 is certainly shaking in its boots.
Men’s Distance Medley Championship of America
Friday, 5:33 pm ET
This race lost a little bit of luster when Oregon chose not to enter collegiate indoor mile record holder Edward Cheserek, but fans should still see a good competition on the track.
Penn State won the 2016 title and will have to defend without Brannon Kidder. Don’t feel too bad for the Nittany Lions as they’ll feature Isaiah Harris in the lineup. All signs point to Harris and his 4:05.89 mile PR running the anchor leg. Harris is currently the NCAA leader in the 800 after running a PR of 1:45.12 to win the Virginia Challenge.
The aforementioned Ducks won’t lack for experience as they’ll use Sam Prakel (3:40.11 PR in the 1500) and Blake Haney (3:56.36 PR in the mile) on the mid-distance legs and Marcus Chambers on the 400. Whether or not Oregon will have the ability to notch a come-from-behind victory if it falls behind is yet to be seen. The Ducks finished 4th indoors in the DMR without Cheserek.
Keep an eye on Georgetown, Middle Tennessee State and Villanova as well. Go ahead and throw Princeton in the mix, too, based on the fact that the Tigers are the last team not named Oregon or Penn State to win the DMR crown since 2012.
Women’s 100 Hurdles | Men’s 110 Hurdles
Saturday, 3:15 pm ET | Saturday, 3:20 pm ET
Pay close attention to the men’s final here as it could be fantastic if Syracuse’s Freddie Crittenden III, Houston’s Amere Lattin, South Carolina’s Isaiah Moore, Youngstown State’s Chad Zallow and Auburn’s Welington Zaza all make it through prelims. Crittenden and Lattin both were in the NCAA final last year, while Crittenden and Zallow made it to the 60-meter hurdle final last month in College Station, Texas, and finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively.
The women’s final should be clearer cut as the Oregon duo of Sasha Wallace and Alaysha Johnson headline the field. Wallace and Johnson are both rounding into postseason form and will hope to maintain or better their standing on the NCAA DI Descending Order List. The latter is currently ranked tied for 3rd with a time of 12.69, while the former is 6th in 12.94.
Men’s 4×800 Championship of America
Saturday, 4:40 pm ET
We’re looking at a great battle between defending champion Penn State and upstart Virginia Tech. The perenially strong Nittany Lions will be led by the aforementioned Harris, while the Hokies came on like gangbusters at the ACC Indoor Championships and the NCAA Indoor Championships and surprised everybody with their depth. Virginia Tech has a strong lineup of Vincent Ciattei, Neil Gourley, Patrick Joseph and Drew Piazza ready to go. Don’t rule out Middle Tennessee State – led by Sampson Laari and Eliud Rutto – either.