To the casual follower, track and field seems like the ultimate test of individual speed, agility, strength, stamina and coordination.
Just don't tell that to area coaches.
"We believe, and I know that a lot of the other local coaches I talk to feel the same way, is that when we're going down to the state championship and we're building our program,'' Altoona Area High School coach Mike Adams said, "we like to build it around the relay.''
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Bellwood-Antis’ Ian O’Shea has been a key contributor to the Blue Devils’ relay teams this season.
Altoona has had a great deal of success with that in the past, and Adams will be taking two relay teams to this weekend's PIAA championship meet, but the Mountain Lions will be far from alone. In fact, a total of nine relays from the Mirror coverage area will be at Shippensburg University's Seth Grove Stadium on Friday and, hopefully, Saturday, seeking state medals.
A top-eight finish is needed to get to the award stand, and four area teams are seeded in the top-10 in their races. By virtue of their time at the District 6 meet, the Altoona boys are rated ninth in the Class AAA four-by-800 meters, as are the Central Cambria girls in Class AA.
Bellwood-Antis has two highly seeded boys teams in the sprint relays - the Blue Devils are sixth in the 400 and are ranked behind only West Philadelphia Catholic at the 1600-meter distance after finishing seventh in Class AA a year ago.
"We really preach the team concept a lot,'' Bellwood coach Nick Lovrich said, "and the kids will do pretty much anything to get on a relay.''
It seems to be a big deal to the kids, too. After winning two individual races at the District 5 championships last week, defending girls Class AA 3200 meters silver medalist Maria Snyder said the highlight of her day was, by far, qualifying for states with her four-by-800 relay team.
Senior Andrew DeGol has played on District 6 finals in two sports most fans would consider as "team'' sports: football and basketball. Primarily a jumper in individual events, he's going to the state track meet as a member of both Bellwood relays, teaming with juniors Cameron Worthing, Seth Worthing and Ian O'Shea in the 400 for the first time and working with senior Zach Sinisi, Seth Worthing and O'Shea as a returning member in the 1600.
"The relays are the same as playing football or basketball,'' DeGol said. "You don't want to let your teammates down.''
That camaraderie really comes out in the relays more than any other event in track. It's where you'll see competitors running across the infield, urging on their teammates. Last year's Bedford four-by-eight girls members all colored streaks in their hair as a show of unity. B-A's 1600 has its own little pre-event bonding routine, which sometimes includes yoga.
As far as the coaches are concerned, putting together a really successful relay is a chore in itself.
"We just don't pick four names out of a hat and say, 'You're our four fastest guys. You're going to be the relay, and you're one, two, three, four,''' Lovrich said.
Certainly, having four fast runners is a big part, but it isn't the only consideration. Each distance presents its own special challenges, and there even are subtle nuances that determine the order. For instance, Northern Bedford 3200 uses Snyder, its best distance runner, as its anchor or final leg. The Central Cambria girls 3200 starts off with Alyssa Bandis, one of the top individual two-milers in the state.
"Sometimes you start an inexperienced runner first, because they are even with everybody. If you put somebody [inexperienced] out there second, and they are a little behind or a little ahead, they might go out there too fast or go too slow and let somebody catch them,'' Central Cambria coach Randy Wilson said. "I try to do a mix of distance kids with sprint kids. I like to have distance kids who can run a strong steady pace to start, but then you like to have your sprinter who has that closing speed to bring it home. You want somebody who can get somebody at the end.''
Handoffs aren't as important in the long distance relay, which will take in the neighborhood of 10 minutes to complete and where more than a half-minute often separates the field at states. In the sprint relays, though, the difference between gold and silver could very likely be tenths or even hundredths of seconds, making clean, precise transitions between the legs crucial.
It's for that reason that Lovrich prefers not to do much tinkering with his 400 combination throughout the spring, while he might hold "run-offs'' for spots in the four-by-400, a grueling race that forces its competitors to run a complete circuit of the track as fast as they can - those doubting how tough it might be should try it.
The other sometimes overlooked facet of the four-by-100 that needs to be taken into consideration is that two members run a straight sprint, while the other two run around a curve. Bellwood-Antis actually times runners in both areas to determine who might fare the best at each.
For instance, Seth Worthing and O'Shea are pure sprinters, so they run the second and fourth stages of the Blue Devils' four-by-one. DeGol runs the third leg, which means he is receiving a handoff, running a curl and the passing the baton along.
"It's actually a lot different. I've never run the open hundred in track or the 200 that much. But you can really lean into the turn and, I don't know what it is, but it gives you help, and we have our handoffs set up so that I'm really running 80-85 meters instead of 100. Seth's the district champ in the [100 and 200], so we have it set up that he's getting the handoff early and giving it up late,'' DeGol said. "That's the strategy.
"I just try to run the fastest split I can.''
Relays also afford coaches the opportunity to break in promising young runners or reward upperclassmen who might not be the top of any individual event but are sure performers with poise.
"We feel we have an opportunity to put four very solid legs together. We might not always have that one really outstanding athlete that some other teams might have around the state,'' Adams said. "We feel like we can put four or five really good kids on the track and train them the proper way, and that gives us a good opportunity to score in the relays.''
Bellwood's boys are looking to do more than score. The 400 has been inching closer to a 12-year-old school record in each of its last few meets. The 1600 broke the Blue Devil record at districts and had the fastest time in the state until just recently; now it's chasing PIAA gold.
"It feels good to know that we're in the running,'' DeGol said. "Anything can happen, and the fact that we can win the state championship is a real thing.''