“We wanted to go out with a bang, we wanted to go out with a win.”
So said Brian Gagnon, the senior star of the University of Connecticut’s stalwart
men’s middle distance corps, and so did every last one of those Huskies.
They did just that, setting a big chunk of their own track and field history in the process, Sunday at Princeton University’s Weaver Stadium.
The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (known to the
world as IC4A) Outdoor Championships dates all the way back to 1876. Just once in all the years since then has it failed to take place - 1917 as the first World War raged. That made this the 133rd IC4A meet in 134 years.
The IC4A has rolled on through the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the best of times the worst of times.
In 1984, the IC4A men got company, when the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) folded its women’s championship meet into this single double-header entity.
The Connecticut women had won their first ECAC team crown in 2008, did it again in 2009, and three-peated Sunday. Ring-leader of the Uconn women once again was the remarkable Trisha-Ann Hawthorne, who collected gold medals in the 100-meter dash (11.58), the 200 (23.30) and 4x100 relay (a meet record of 44.43), each of them for a third consecutive year.
On top of that, Uconn’s Mandela Graves-Fulgham took the 400 in 53.07, Emma Crowcroft the javelin at 154-2, and the 4x800 relay won in 8:44.95.
However, taking home the big, gold championship trophy (to complete the Storrs, Ct. school’s resounding daily double) was an all-new experience for the UConn men.
Sure, they’ve been fielding super men’s track and field teams for eons. Sure, they’ve been dominating forces in the New England Intercollegiate and Big East Conference ranks for as long as many track and field devotees can remember.
But UConn had never won the IC4A team title, either, over all those years. A year ago, the Huskies were a mere 13th.
Everything changed Sunday and Brian Gagnon was cast as the main man of it all.
At 1:40 pm on this sun-blessed day, he answered the starting gun for the 800 meters and blasted out to a 1:47.96 victory. In a bang-bang-bang finish, he fought off VMI’s Felix Kitur (1:48.07), who in turn fought off Gagnon’s teammate. Michael Rutt (1:48.09.)
UConn had entered the third and final day of the IC4A meet down 14 points to front-running Liberty University (39) and host Princeton (27) at that point.
But Gagnon’s win was worth 10 points and Rutt’s third added 6 to the Uconn column and the 16-point haul would prove the turning point of the meet.
It still took some additional heroics for the Huskies to wrap it all up, and that came in the 4x800 relay final an hour and 10 minutes later.
UConn coach Greg Roy’s original leaning was to use two of his second-line runners,
Scott Johnson and Alex Bennatan in the 4x800 final, along with junior Dan Holst and sophomore Tim Bennatan.
With the sweet sniff of success in the air, however, Coach Roy pulled out all stops and put the baton in Rutt’s and Gagnon’s hands.
Could they come back on comparatively short rest and deliver a pair of strong legs?
Could they fight off one of the strongest fields in IC4A 4x800 history? (So strong that teams as fast as Princeton at 7:33.69 and Cornell and 7:33.71 were too slow to qualify for the nine-school final out of Saturday’s prelims.)
The answer was a resounding “yes.”
LaSalle, Penn and Fordham had shared some of the early pacesetting responsibilities but simply couldn’t match the UConn 3-4 punch of Rutt and Gagnon.
Gagnon had just enough left to fight off Penn’s Daryll Oliver on the anchor carry. The final margin was all of 1.15 seconds (7:23.49 to 7:24.64) with Georgetown (7:24.65) right in there, too.
There was a special glory in it, too, for fourth-place Fordham. The Rams’ quartet of Tim Hutchinson, Brian Schmidt, John Cosgrove and Kevin Fitzgerald ran 7:27.29 and that was a virtually exact match of the world record 4x880-yard clocking of 7:27.3 by the 1954 Fordham team anchored by Olympic champion-to-be Tom Courtney.
So, with just the 4x400 remaining, and none of the top top scoring teams in it,
the UConn men were over the top.
The final numbers: UConn 64 points, Liberty 55, Rutgers 39, George Mason 36, Hampton 35...and all the way down to St. Joseph’s, Central Connecticut, Southern Connecticut and Dartmouth, tied for 52nd place with one point apiece.
This was a team triumph in the full sense.
“We were all here supporting each other,” said Gagnon. “When we weren’t running our own events, we were cheering for the other guys. When we found out we were in contention to win, we just went crazy.
“Everyone was cheering on our throwers and jumpers (with every event scored down to eighth place, Uconn’s Mike Alleman would place fifth in the shot put, Tyrone Faverey fifth in the triple jump, and Dylan Dombrowowski eighth in the javelin.) Then everybody was on the track for that 4x800.
“We’re built on team chemistry. Winning the IC4A is a very big first for us. This meet has a whole lot of history to it. We’re glad we made some of our own.”
Of course, there were a heap of other standout performances through the three days of IC4A action.
Liberty’s Sam Chelanga (13:54.81) fought off sub-4:00 miler Kyle Merber (14:02.91) of Columbia in a stirring 5,000 meters.
Army’s Domonick Sylve (13.85) nosed out Rutgers’ Kyle Grady (13.98) in the 110 high hurdles.
Princeton freshman Conor McCullough stretched his own USA junior national hammer throw record to 232-3. (Note, too, that McCullough is a graduate of California’s Chaminade High School; the man he succeeded as both IC4A champion and Princeton record-holder, is Alex Pessala, a graduate of Long Island’s Chaminade High School.)
While UConn’s win was an emotion-packed happening, the real poignancy of the day focused on the Seton Hall team. The Hall administration’s earlier announcement that it would be dropping its men’s and women’s track and field programs - while retaining cross country - was a true shocker.
John Moon, the Hall’s distinguished head coach for 38 years, his staff, and every last one of the Pirates, were totally stunned.
Many are still trying to determine their future plans.
One SHU athlete who has made his call is junior 400-meter runner Christopher Cox. Yes, he’ll be staying in South Orange, NJ though the spring of 2011 to complete his degree requirements. But no, he wasn’t going to abandon ship immediately.
There was still business at hand, and that was closing out his IC4A career in a heap of glory. He did just that - blazing to a 46.98 third place in the 400 final, then running his heart out, in a 45.4 anchor lap in the concluding 4x400 relay that barely missed catching George Mason anchor Ja-Vell Bullard in the final strides (3:07.12 to 3:07.51.)
“I gave it everything I possibly could,” said Cox. “I thought I could catch him. But we (he and teammates Antonio Reynolds, Carl Smith and Kamar Ellis) didn’t leave anything on the track, either. We’re going out with our heads held high.”
Moon had highest praise for his athletes.
“The last five meets, they’ve gone above and beyond,” he said. “But that’s all that they’ve got to fight back with, their legs and their jumping ability.
“The way it looks, we’re going to be the only college in New Jersey without a track program, Division I, II or III. You get these people who don’t know anything about sports, who make these decisions. Everybody I talk to cannot believe this is happening at Seton Hall. They’re just numb about it. That’s what’s so frightening.
“Track and field is such a big part of Seton Hal’s heritage. You look at Harry Coates and Johnny Gibson’s (who preceded Moon at the Hall helm) and everything they did, all the great champions we’ve all produced.
“This is all just wrong.”
Trying to right a tough situation were Moon’s colleagues in the IC4A Coaches Association, who honored him in a special ceremony,
Ironic fact: Moon's reputation has never been held in higher esteem. He is currently considered one of the two or three leading candidates to be named head coach of the USA men’s Olympic Team bound for the 2012 London Games.
Seton Hall’s women performed nobly, too, as Jernail Hayes won the 400-meter hurdles, coming on with a big rush over the final barrier to take it in 57.04, and Louise Faye placed third in the triple jump.
But there was no stopping the UConn women, who rolled up 105 points, leaving runner-up Columbia (54), third-place Brown (41)and 48 other scoring teams deep in the ruck.
“You look at all the results, up and down the line, and this was a tremendous meet,” said UConn women’s team head coach Bill Morgan.
“The weather was great, the administration of the meet was great, I’ve been coming down here for so many years.
“To have both our men and women win, that’s pretty special.
(Georgetown had won both in 2000-01, George Mason in 1991-92-94-96-97, Penn State in 1986-87.)
“To score over 100 points, that’s pretty dominating, too.
“Did I think that was going to happen? Not at all.
“But we came here to win it and accomplished so much.
“In a meet this big, and so spread out, we needed our champions and they certainly came through for us.”