NSAF On-Site at Penn Relays - Preview: 9 Burning Questions!

by Steve Underwood

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So many storylines during a weekend at the Penn Relays!  But here are 9 "burning questions" we can't wait to see answered, especially relative to these great NBN and NSAF performers who are here this weekend!  Stay tuned for more previews and photos on this page!

Will Team Lyles go out in style in boys’ 4x1 and/or 4x4? 

In 2015, when the Noah- and Josephus Lyles-led T.C. Williams, VA squads were 4th in the Penn 4x400 (3:13.97 after 3:12.17 prelim) and 5th in the 4x100 (40.84), you had the feeling they were just a little bit of experience and time away from something really, really big – like national-record, maybe-Penn-Relays-wheel big.  In 2016, a few of the pieces around the Lyles have evolved, and they’ve gotten better – at least as evidenced by their 1:26.21 4x200 NBNI title, #2 all-time – using a squad that also included senior Tre’kel Locket and frosh Kai Cole.  The pieces came together there and the brothers Lyles were lights out individually as well.  But can they really contend for or win a Penn 4x1 or 4x4 title? 

A recent 41.10 4x1 showed good form, but even with the mediocre sprinting weather forecast for this weekend, it might take 40.5 or better even to make top 3 and almost certainly sub-40 to win it.  Three Jamaican teams – Kingston College (39.52), defending champ and meet record-holder (39.63) Calabar and Jamaica College – have all gone sub-40 this year.  As for the 4x4, T.C. Williams didn’t focus much on that indoors (full strength, anyway) and while they’ve hit 3:18 and 3:19 outdoors, 3:12 seems off right now – though if both Lyles split 46 or better, they’ll certainly have a shot.  Winning times in recent years have ranged between 3:09 and 3:11, but with Calabar and Kingston College sporting prodigal talents on anchor like Christopher Taylor and Akeem Bloomfield, it’s gonna be a fast year.  So, the bottom line is that it will probably take a performance beyond extraordinary to see the Titans in the running in the final stretch – and if they improve from last year in either or both races, it should be seen as a triumph.

Who will win epic Grey-Holloway boys’ LJ showdown?

It’s not often that a jump is seen as one of the most hotly anticipated events of the Penn “Relays”, but this year’s boys’ long jump fits the bill.  If Grant Holloway (Grassfield, VA sr) had chosen to contest the long jump at NBNI – he was US#1 (25-11.5) at the time – he would have been the clear favorite.  But he went for the pentathlon and 60H instead – winning both and setting a national record in the latter.  However, as Rayvon Grey (Beacon, NY sr) improved his PR by more than a foot in the LJ, reaching 26-0.25 and supplanting Holloway for #3 on the all-time list, fans realized what a showdown could have been had.

That showdown happens here at Penn.  Since NBNI, Holloway has a 25-4(nwi) on his early spring ledger and Grey a modest 23-5, but don’t think they won’t be amped up to compete and go far.  As well as Holloway has competed over his career, he lacks a major outdoor title beyond Virginia and that will be motivation, as well as re-establishing national supremacy.  For Grey, it’s a chance to prove NBNI was no fluke and to advance his rising star.  The stakes are huge in this battle.  The Penn meet record, by the way, is 25-2.75, set 22 years ago – obviously within reach in favorable conditions (a question mark, to be fair).  The field behind these two is solid, led by NBNI runner-up William Henderson (Baltimore Tech, MD sr) with a PR of 24-8.5, but anything other than a Holloway-Grey duel would be a surprise.

Can Hunter and “The Jungle” make history and add to NBNI glory?

Drew Hunter has the chance to accomplish two things in this 122nd Penn Relays:  The first is to make history as the only athlete ever to win the boys’ 3k, mile and distance medley relay … and the second is to simply earn a wheel for himself and his Loudoun Valley, VA teammates and back up that impressive NBNI DMR triumph.  As far as making history, Hunter indeed could set himself apart from any other prep distance boy at Penn.  He started with that stunning, unexpected 3k triumph as a soph in 2014, then ruled the mile with a ferocious kick last spring.  Accomplishing the “triple” would confirm again not only his tremendous talent, but also display remarkable consistency and perseverance. 

There’s also, however, simply the matter of a wheel for Loudoun County.  Hunter has proven a team guy, alternating such relay efforts with his great individual performance vs. elites so far in 2016 – including those three national records over a mile (twice) and 3,000m.  He wants this for himself, and them.  Teammates Willem Smagh, Colton Bugucki and Nathaniel Thompson proved up to the task in New York last month, clocking 10:03.42, and each have had good outdoor marks early.  Here, the competition will be similar, with NBNI runner-up River Dell, NJ (10:03.98) posing the stiffest challenge overall, and Hunter facing the prospects of racing great milers like Concord-Carlisle’s Tom Ratcliffe and Fordham Prep’s Conor Lundy, to name a few, on the anchors.  Ratcliffe split 4:02.34 in the NBNI DMR (his team was 3rd at 10:12.36) and making up any kind of deficit against him would be a tall task.

Can McLaughlin, UC girls challenge Jamaican powers?

Sydney McLaughlin is best known for her scintillating runs over the hurdles during a prep career that has included three NBN titles (two at 400H, one at 60H) and great performances at the Junior and Youth levels, including last summer’s World Youth 400H title.  But she’s nearly as impressive over the flat, where she showed her talent like never before during last month’s national record run (51.84) in the NBNI 400.  She had previously had sub-52 4x400 legs, such as during the 2015 NBNO race where she finished off Union Catholic’s 3:35.90 - #4 all-time.  Similarly, her great come-from-behind effort gave UC the NBNI 4x4 crown last month in 3:40.28 – also #2 all-time.

McLaughlin has yet to run a 400H at Penn, but she will return to the UC 4x4 here for the first time since 2014 – and with a great chance to run 3:40 or better with teammates Tia Livingston, Cassandra Lamadieu and Amari Onque-Shabazz.  The question is, will it be fast enough?  Certainly to make the Championship of America final, yes.  Over recent years, winning times by Jamaican powers such as Vere Tech and Edwin Allen have ranged between 3:34 and 3:42.  But this year, St. Elizabeth Tech is the top entry with a 3:33.15 best … and with an anchor in Jurnell Bromfield with similar 51-second 400 creds to McLaughlin.

Who will win intriguing girls’ 400H battle?

What a great and compelling event the girls’ 400H could be – even without the above-mentioned megastar Sydney McLaughlin.  You’ve got 56-second performers in USA Junior and Pan Am Junior champ Anna Cockrell (56.67 in ’15, 57.77 this year) and Jamaicans Shannon Kalawan (56.29) and Andrenette Knight (56.98), 57.47 runner and World Youth bronze medalist Brandee Johnson, and a defending champion in Brooklyn Broadwater that not only is not considered the favorite, but barely a contender against this field.  The thing is, Cockrell and Johnson WERE in the field last year and finished 3rd and 4th behind Brooklyn’s 1:00.69.  Of course, Cockrell and Johnson would run a lot faster later in 2015, while Broadwater would not.

However, Broadwater recently ran an impressive PR 58.95 … and here’s the other thing.  When you’re rolling out of bed on the first day of Penn to run the first morning event when the meet’s barely started – you have to be ready, really ready.  And it sure doesn’t hurt when you’re practically a hometown athlete like Broadwater and haven’t traveled to get here.  The cool weather should not be as much a challenge for her, either.  Also consider this: the past two years at Penn, a girl NOT in the “fast” heat has won – in fact, Broadwater was running in just the 3rd-fastested seeded section when she won last year.  Of all the girls in the 56- to 62-second range, the ones who are best prepared to rip it on a bracing early morning will prevail.

Who will take the latest Dunbar-Wilson girls’ shot put showdown?

There may not be a better single-state field event rivalry in prep track and field than Nickolette Dunbar (Whippany Park, NJ sr) vs. Alyssa Wilson (Donovan Catholic, NJ jr) in the shot put.  The two of them will make it well worth your while to make the long trek down to the shot put ring Thursday afternoon at 3:30 pm.  In case you were living under a rock this past winter, Wilson – who had gone from being a 49-footer to a 51-footer during the fall – exploded out of the gate (Dec. 19) with a 54-5 that made her #3 all-time and proceeded to put together the best season-long string of performances ever in the shot, going over 53 feet 8 times.  Yet Wilson was also beaten both in the NJ Meet of Champions and NBNI by Dunbar, who was a 50-footer last year and a World Youth finalist. 

Dunbar had started her season more modestly, but by MOC, she powered a 53-2 to beat her rival.  Wilson came back 3 days later at Eastern States for a 54-11 bomb (#2 all-time) to “even the score,” so to speak, but Dunbar got the last word at NBNI with her 54-7.5 (#4 all-time) to Wilson’s 53-3.5.  Now in a month or so of outdoors, Wilson has thrown 53-4.75 and Dunbar 49-10.5, but Dunbar it should be noted is the defending champ here at 50-8 (her outdoor PR) – while Wilson has never competed at Penn.  This is their first matchup since NBNI, so look out!  It’s the first time two 54-foot preps have competed against each other, and even competed at all in the same year!

Will Murphy, Lake Braddock girls’ step up in DMR?

It’s unusual when a top distance medley relay team doesn’t come back from indoor nationals to compete at Penn.  Going for the NBNI/Penn DMR “double” is pretty common.  But for new national record setters North Rockland, the problem reportedly is that because the squad includes an 8th-grader – star anchor Katelyn Tuohy – they are not eligible for Penn.  So the focus for the girls’ DMR shifts to Lake Braddock, which themselves ran the 11:39.10 at NBNI for 2nd and #6 all-time.  At NBNI, Lake Braddock had the team of Shannon Browning (3:40.05) Samantha Schwers (58.16), Skyla Davidson (2:16.94) and Kate Murphy (4:43.95).  One of the early legs was reported well off full strength in that race, and Murphy is capable of 4-5 seconds faster, so 11:35 or better is clearly possible.

Then there is Murphy’s story, that of another great distance runner – like Drew Hunter and Weini Kelati – coming out of Virginia this year.  Murphy was also 2nd in the NBNI mile to Katie Rainsberger, despite another all-time great performance of 4:39.47 (#6 a-t) and capping off a great all-around winter.  But lest you think Murphy is always a bridesmaid, recall that she was the Penn 3k champ last spring as a soph – adding momentum to a year would see her win USA Junior and Pan Am Junior 1,500 titles.  Murphy could do like Drew and try and win the mile as a junior, but she’s hoping to lead Lake Braddock to the wheel first.  As a senior next year?  Who knows … but it should be great.

Will Project Javelin Gold get its first boys’ title at Penn?

NSAF Project Javelin and Project Triple Jump athletes on the girls’ side have shone at the Penn Relays before: Witness the javelin win by Sophia Rivera last spring or the triple jump title by Keturah Orji in 2014.  This year, the attention turns to the boys’ javelin, where a pair of Project athletes are competing.  The event’s leading entry, in fact, is Penn first-timer Liam Christensen.  The Academic Magnet (North Charleston), SC junior is opening his campaign with a long trip north after a great 2015 that saw him nearly make the World Youth javelin final (238-2 with Youth jav), take 2nd in the American JavFest (209-5 with HS jav) and take 2nd at USATF JOs.

But Christensen is not the only one to watch.  Grayson Hill, in his 3rd year with the Project is a Pennsylvania guy (Cathedral Prep senior) but has never thrown at Penn.  He had a best of 200-3 last year, taking 4th at NBNO, 3rd in the WY Trials and winning CSI.  This spring so far he has hit 190-11, but don’t be surprised if that improves dramatically Friday.  The field also includes Mike Marsack (Stroudsburg, PA sr), 2nd at 2015 NBNO and Chicagoland champ with his 210-10 PR, and the latest super soph – Richland, PA 10th grader Ethan Dabbs, who’s thrown 208-0 this spring.

Can Kelati take down 31-year-old girls’ 3k mark?

You can bet good money on the fact that NBNI double champ and 5k national record-setter Weini Kelati – in any major track or cross-country meet – is going to “go for it” from the gun, taking the lead and running a fast pace.  If the weather conditions are poor, that could still get her a victory, but not likely a really fast time.  If the conditions are at least decent, watch out.  This past winter, Kelait had her 16:08.83 5k record, a 10:02.71 deuce in her other NBNI win, plus a 9:19.99 3k.  Her overall 3k best of 9:12.32 dates back to the 2014 World Juniors for Eritrea.  Point is, a PR could be well within her reach and, if she gets it then one of the Relays most-esteemed and long-standing individual records could go down: 9:15.3h by Cathy Schiro in 1985. 

Schiro was a great prep distance prodigy back in the day and would go on to become an 2-time Olympic marathoner (1988 and 1992).  In fact, she still holds the prep girls’ record for the marathon at 2:34:24 from the 1984 Trials.  But back to Kelati – can anyone push her here?  The very good field includes fellow Virginian Libby Davidson (EC Glass jr) and 2014 Penn 3k champ Hannah Debalsi (Staples, CT sr).  But if Kelati goes out and tries to run 9:20 pace or faster, it’s likely that everyone else will be racing for 2nd.


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