The Oldest Record On The Books
It's been more than 45 years since Matt Centrowitz set the New York State record of 4:02.7 for the mile.
Runners have been taking aim at the mark, with another crop determined to smash the venerable record.
Matt Payamps of St. Anthony's, Matt Rizzo of Bronxville, Shea Weilbaker of Saratoga Springs, and a host of others will zero in on Centrowitz's mark this spring. They've memorized the number, if nothing else.
Little do they know, Centrowitz' legendary high school running career began almost by accident.
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As a freshman at Andrew Jackson HS in Queens, Centro tried out for the pole vault, then abruptly decided he didn't want to get banged up and hurt. He chose running instead.
Under the tutelage of legendary PSAL coach Milt Blatt, Matt Centrowitz ran a 4:30-mile as a high school freshman at Jackson, winning the city PSAL freshman championship.
A less-than-ideal family situation resulted in a move to the Bronx, very near to Van Cortlandt Park, and a subsequent enrollment at Power Memorial Academy.
(*Editor's Note: Matt would run alongside his younger brother, Jerry Centrowitz, who would in turn be part of the 1974 State Record 4xMile team the year after Matt graduated Power, splitting 4:21.7 to contribute to the 17:19.6 total mark.)
Power Memorial proved to be an ideal setting for Centrowitz. Power was, in an apt word, powerful, and there were training partners for a young sophomore. Ray Naudain, Joe Barbary, and Ed Walsh were among the stalwarts of a strong team that thrived under the guidance of Brother John Bielen.
"Both coach Blatt and Brother Bielen taught me the value of hard work," said Centrowitz.
And the Catholic High School Athletic Association was loaded with good distance-oriented teams and individuals.
"I think I got into the tail end of the golden era of the CHSAA," he said, rattling off names and teams that were perennial contenders. In this setting, no one team or individual had absolute control.
Bishop Loughlin, Nazareth, Monsignor Farrell, Archbishop Molloy, Saint Anthony's, Chaminade, and a host of others were part of a meat-grinder CHSAA league that prided itself as being the best middle-distance league in the country.
"You always had to be ready for someone who wanted to knock you off," said Centrowitz of the talent-laden CHSAA. "In any meet, you could count on someone raising their game."
Within the CHSAA and PSAL, Bill Dabney of Boys HS, Peter Gaughn of Nazareth, and Ed Valenski of Maria Regina were among the many ready to do battle.
"Every week, we were going to war, but in a healthy way," said Centrowitz, who added," I saw how dedicated the coaches in the CHSAA and PSAL were, and I thrived in that environment."
Centrowitz credits Van Cortlandt Park and the environs for aiding his development.
Centrowitz (right) would finish second to Dave Sandridge (Left) as he set the VCP course record in 1972 at 12:20.9. Centro ran 12:24.5 in that race, just shy of Marty Liquoiri's 12:23.4 previous CR)
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"On weekends, I'd go out for my long runs (at VCP), and I'd usually run into some guys from Manhattan College. I started to tag along in the back, and saw what they were doing. It introduced me to the notion of how hard these guys were training."
"These guys" included some of the East's best, and all had been high school champions.
Tony Colon (Power), Mike Keogh (Essex Catholic), Cliff Bruce (Bishop Dubois), Marty Walsh (New Dorp), and Joe Savage (Roselle Catholic) proved to be instrumental in Centrowitz' success.
"These guys were my heroes," said Centrowitz. "I learned a lot from them, and they were part of a team that was contending for national championships. And once in a while, I'd bump in to the coaches (Fred Dwyer and Frank Gagliano) and they'd give me little tips."
"Running with those guys gave me a great deal of confidence," he said.
Keogh and Colon became Olympians, while the Manhattan College team won an NCAA indoor title in 1973.
Progressing from 4:30 as a freshman to 4:19 as a soph, and 4:13 as a junior, there was little thought of running a super-fast mile. There were league championships, the always-important Penn Relays, and numerous other competitions to worry about.
Centrowitz made a big breakthrough during his sophomore year, running a 9:11 two-mile. But Howie McNiff of Albertus Magnus was a step better, running 9:10.
Few went undefeated in any event in the CHSAA those days, and Centrowitz was beaten by Cathedral Prep's Kevin McCarey in cross country.
"I was working harder," said Centrowitz, "and sometimes training twice a day- but not every day."
In his senior year, he ran a quick 12:24.5 over the famed 2.5-mile course at Van Cortlandt Park (photo above), and seemed to win everything in sight indoors.
The spring of 1973 was cold and wet, save for early-season weekends.
Power had its eyes set on a distance double at Penn, but came away frustrated with two sets of silver medals.
Centrowitz could not catch Tim Conheeney of Paramus Catholic in the distance medley relay on Friday, and came up short again on Saturday as Chris Ryan and Monsignor Farrell won on a cold, damp, and windy day.
However, there was only six weeks left in his high school season. His time at Power Memorial was coming to a close.
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In mid-May, he turned in a 1:54.6-880 in winning the CHSAA Sectional title at Mount St. Michael.
Now, invitations from meet directors at the post-season invitationals began to pour in.
"In the CHSAA, we had a one-event rule on the track," he noted, "so I wasn't over-raced."
He claimed "a big breakthrough" at the Eastern States outdoor championships, where he split 1:51.5 anchoring the Power two-mile relay.
Centrowitz, now a multi-champion within the CHSAA, began to set his goals higher.
The first step was a date at the International Prep Invitational, where he met up with Craig Virgin, the wunderkind of the Midwest.
Centrowitz responded with an 8:56-two mile, becoming the first-ever New Yorker under 9:00 (pictured below, his previous best being a 9:01 set at the Nanuet Relays earlier that year, then a State Record). The only problem was that Virgin ran an incredible 8:40.9, and Centrowitz quipped, "That showed me where I was."
A week later, at the Golden West Invite, Centrowitz took the mile in 4:08.4 and then added a fourth-place 8:56.2 performance in the two-mile.
Traveling proved to be an eye-opener for a kid used to competing within New York City. His biggest trip had previously been to the Penn Relays, where they slept four-to-a-room.
"Now, we were two to a room, and I had my own bed. I responded well to the first-class treatment."
"And it was getting warmer; my thicker muscles needed that heat, and I liked the challenges of running at a higher level."
For a kid whose furthest trip had been to the Penn Relays, Centrowitz loved the new opportunities.
"I got the travel bug," he said. "I was meeting new people, seeing things I had never seen, and learning."
"Coach Ed Bowes (Bishop Loughlin) acted as a liaison in getting me into the New York AC," said Centrowitz, "and he and Brother Bielen accompanied me to Florida."
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Heading south, he received some important advice from Bowes, who advised him "to go out in 2:04, run the third lap in 60, and then hang on."
Gainesville was like an oven for the Junior Nationals. "It was 90 degrees, with about 100% humidity, and the race was run at three in the afternoon," laughed Centrowitz. "I said to Brother Bielen, "Why is it sunny, and I'm still all wet- I thought it was raining. That's how humid it was. What did I know? And worse, I wore my heavy Power woolen sweats for my warmup- so when I took them off, it felt cool. "
Bowes' advice turned out well for Centrowitz, as he passed through the 800 in 2:02. "I then took the lead, and pushed the pace on the third lap," he said. "I ran a 60."
He hung on for second, finishing in a New York State record 4:02.7. The winner was Mark Schilling of San Jose State, who had finished second to Dave Wottle in the NCAA championships held the week before. As is now for USATF Junior Champs, Collegiate Athletes can compete as long as they have not exceeded a certain age requirement.
That Record still stands today. Since 1972, only one athlete has come within 3-seconds of that mark. Mikey Brannigan (Northport) ran 4:03.18 in 2015 at the Adidas Dream Mile, giving the 46 year old record a scare. Before Brannigan, the next best challenger came from Vince Draddy of Iona Prep back in 1979, when he ran 4:05.31.
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"Training" for these post-season meets consisted primarily of recovery runs.
"We were traveling, so you couldn't really do too much. I wasn't doing what you'd really call training. I remember running a 4:50 mile, then a 30-minute run, followed by another 4:50 mile."
He said, "Remember, I was a high school kid running against juniors, but almost all of them were in college. I learned a lot from just being around them- talking with the half-milers."
"I started to do what guys like Keith Francis were doing, a lot of recovery runs, plus a lot of straightaways and strides."
He added, "I could learn something about running by reading a book, but this was different," he said, referring to the first-hand experience of hanging around some of the nation's best. "I loved it, and it gave me a great deal of confidence."
Overseas travel included a stop in Heidelberg, Germany, where he won the 1,500 meters, followed by a second-place 1,500 finish in a junior dual met against Poland.
The race in Warsaw featured 50-degree weather and strong winds. "Coming from New York," I was used to all kinds of conditions- we ran in everything. I felt well-prepared."
Rom Addison, the University of Tennessee steepler, was the rabbit for the race. "I took over at the half- 1:58," said Centrowitz, "and pushed the pace."
"I ran 3:43.3, and Reed Fischer ran 3:42.7," said Centrowitz. "Reed had finished third at the Junior Nationals, and was an alternate. We had a rivalry-I wasn't happy about the finish, but the rivalry was healthy."
(*Editor's Note: This 1500m still stands as the New York State Record as well, challenged more greatly by Vince Draddy in 1979, when he ran 3:44.6. Both Draddy and Centro would go on to be Sub-4 Milers.)
One week later, he ran 14:17.0 in a junior dual meet against the Soviet Union in Odessa.
"With every race, I was gaining more and more confidence- I loved everything about being out of the city- the travel, the hotels, the meets themselves," said Centrowitz.
He had one more race. "Reed (Fischer) was the pacer, and was supposed to take us out in 58, but he ran 66 for the first lap," said Centrowitz. "I still managed to run 3:46 off that."
A whole new world had opened up to a kid who ran most of his races at Van Cortlandt Park, the Armory, and the Mount St. Michael track in the Bronx.
"I loved the competition, loved the travel, and loved wearing the USA uniform. I never wanted this to end."
Centrowitz had signed with Manhattan College, less than 15 minutes away from his home, but soon felt he needed something bigger and better than the small private institution in Riverdale. He had outgrown Van Cortlandt Park, the Armory, and Downing Stadium.
Transferring to the University of Oregon and coach Bill Dellinger, the East Coast transplant became one of Oregon's all-time greats.
By 1976, he was an Olympian, and again made the Olympic team in 1980, the year of the ill-fated boycott.
He won gold at the Pan-American Games in 1979 in Puerto Rico, and won four U.S. national titles at 5,000 meters from 1979-82, and ultimately set the U.S. record for 5,000 meters (13:12.91).
In 2016, he experienced the ultimate thrill in Rio de Janeiro, when his son, Matthew Jr. won the 1,500-meter title.
A former coach who produced many champions at American University in Washington, D.C. Last year, he came out of retirement, accepting a position as director of track and field at Manhattan College, where he's determined to restore the Jaspers to the top rung of track and field.
His book- Like Father, Like Son, is available through amazon.com.