NEW YORK - Tradition-tradition-tradition.
Okay, okay, no one's fiddling on the roof of the Armory Track and Field Center, but the familiar plot line continues to hold up as the New Balance Indoor Nationals heads into The Big Apple's Washington Heights section for a 31st renewal.
Virtually every event on the three-day Friday-Saturday-Sunday card is loaded with the talent that has collegiate track coaches - and indeed chieftains of future U.S. international squads - panting in anticipation of the great things just ahead.
But it's the pair of hurdles races - boys and girls over the 60-meter route - that has NBIN-goers especially excited.
It took an Aries Merritt victory at London last August for Team USA to end a three-Games losing streak in the men's 110-meter highs, but American hurdlers had been hugely dominant in the years before that, taking 12 of the 14 titles available to them, including an amazing nine-Games winning streak between 1932 and 1972.
U.S. women hurdlers haven't quite matched that kind of Olympic dominance, but the roster of American gold medalists includes such celebrities as Dawn Harper (2008). Joanna Hayes (2004), Benita Fitzgerald Brown (1984) and, indeed, the late, great Mildred "Babe" Didrikson (1932.)
Q. Where did all this hurdles strength emerge?
A. Almost invariably, the high school ranks.
America's most recent Olympic champions serve as perfect, shining examples.
Aries Merritt prepped at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga. (class of 2003), Dawn Harper at East St. Louis Senior High in Illinois (class of 2002.)
Just look at the results of the 2003 Outdoor Nationals - the boys 110 highs went to Cleveland's Theodore Ginn in 13.62 - and he had to beat three future Olympic medalists to do it. Texans Jason Richardson (silver medalist back of Merritt at London) ran second to Ginn; Kerron Clement (2008 Olympic 400 runnerup and 4x400 gold medalist) was fifth, and 2012 Olympic king Merritt just sixth.
The NBINs have produced some great races of their own.
The 2008 edition, for instance. Knoxville West's Jackie Coward won the girls title in 8.32 after running to the still-standing national record of 8.16 earlier that season.
The 1995 meet, when Deworski Odom of Philadelphia's Overbrook High (you know, Wilt Chamberlain's alma mater), took the boys 55 hurdles final in a meet-record 7.08 and won the 55 dash, too, in 6.16.
The 1985 meet, when Eric Cannon of Wilmington, Delaware lowered the boys 55 hurdles mark to 7.31.
And all the way back to the 1984 edition, when Claire Connor of Rahway, NJ not only won the 55-meter hurdles in 8.12, but took golds in the 55-meter dash and long jump, too.
Then again, last year's two NBIN hurdles finals were red-hot, too.
In a rarity, all eight 2012 boys 60 hurdles finalists were seniors.
The winner was Donovan Robertson in 7.70 (who'd run a national-record 7.57 earlier last winter) and the very mention of his hometown of Berea. Ohio, had hurdles historians speeding down memory lane.
Yes, Berea, Ohio is the home of Baldwin-Wallace College and of Harrison Dillard, the man (now age 89) still considered by many the greatest of all high hurdlers, a four-time Olympic gold medalist (100-meter dash and 4x100 relay 1948; 110 highs and 4x100 1952) ) and once the owner of 82 straight hurdles wins along with seven straight National AAU indoor crowns.
Well, Donovan Robertson is now running for Ohio State and Harrison Dillard is surely hoping to see him reach the sport's biggest-time as a Buckeye.
Maryland's Dondre Echols (7.76) and Georgia's Jordan Moore (7.76) were right on Donovan Robertson's heels in a race so close just 0.11 seconds separated the top five. These days, Echols is at South Carolina and Moore at TCU.
The NBIN meet record remains the property of Raleigh, NC's Wayne Davis, who ran 7.60 in 2009 - and just look at Davis now. He's a senior star at Texas A&M (and running the NCAA's this weekend at Arkansas) coming off a brilliant London Olympics (where he got to the Games semifinals running for Trinidad and Tobago.)
Earlier at NBIN, Davis had set the national junior record of 7.62 in 2008 and the sophomore record of 7.83 in 2007. Outdoors, he'd also set world youth and junior best-evers over the 110s.
The 2012 girls hurdles final was a relative runaway - Denver's Dior Hall taking the gold as a precocious sophomore in the meet and national-soph record time of 8.19. And four of the other 2012 finalists return with her - California's Sasha Wallace (second in 8.35), Georgia's Kendell Williams (fifth in 8.50),Texas's Skylar Ross-Ransom (seventh in 8.55) and New Yorker Akayla Anderson (eighth in 8.76.)
With all the 2012 boys finalists graduated, the top candidates to follow in their exploits include Texas junior Tony Brown (who has run 7.76 this winter), Michigan senior Freddie Crittenden (also at 7.76), Pennsylvania senior Wellington Zaza (7.79), Alabama junior Marlon Humphrey (7.80) and North Carolina junior Isaiah Moore (who has run the 55 highs in 7.41, a 7.91 60 equivalent.)
Back on the girls side, Hall has already equaled Coward's national junior record of 8.17 this winter, with Wallace at 8.18, Williams at 8.43 and Ross-Ransom at 8.50. Before any of the individual hurdles action opens, Williams focuses on the pentathlon.
Before they came to NYC, these four leading ladies ran their "prelim" on the other side of the nation, with Wallace (8.18), Hall (8.21), Ross-Ransom (8.33) and Williams (8.35) going 1-2-3-4 in Seattle's Brooks Invitational Meet.
So there you have it, the scene is set for some brilliant racing over "the sticks" - as the event was called in Harrison Dillard's day.
Prelims are Saturday and semis and finals on Sunday.
The enlightened views of Pennsylvanian Wellington Zaza and Californian Sasha Wallace are typical.
"It's a blessing just to be able to run at this level, and I'm thankful to all the people who've helped me get this far," said Zaza, now at Garnet Valley High after previous stays at Strath Haven and Upper Darby.
"When you're running against athletes as good as these, you can't worry about time." said Wallace, now at Castro Valley High after transferring from Holy Names. As she knew after the Brooks meet, "when you're in the blocks against the best, you know the other runners are going to push you to run even faster."
Photos courtesy of PhotoRun.com