It took the 4 anchors of West Chester Henderson
to take down a remarkable PA state record
Suzanne Sanders (SR) 3rd leg: 2:13.9 - Janie Augustyn (JR) 1st leg: 2:15.7 -
Michelle Tracy (JR) 2nd leg: 2:12.8 - Natalie Deacon (SO) 4th leg: 2:12.9
West Chester Henderson girls coach Bill Lott is about as unassuming as they come in this sport. Amid the bellowing sounds of "moooooooove"… and barks of "Ya Gotta Goooooo" heard around most any oval, there is Lott. Quiet. Composed. Confident.
Oh, he'll park himself at the 200 meter mark in the 4x800 to offer encouragement, instructions and splits to his runners… but you won't hear him from across the track, let alone 30 feet away.
But during the handoff from the leadoff leg to second leg of his girls' record-setting 4x800 final on the final day of the PIAA State Championships on May 28th at Shippensburg University, Lott uttered something out loud that he immediately hoped those near him would not hear. He simply said – "We win."
There wasn't a hint of arrogance, or the scent of gloating. It was simply the observation of a coach who knew his kids, knew what he was seeing unfold, and realizing in a single moment that all their hard work and singular focus was paying off. All they had to do was get the stick around six more laps, and West Chester Henderson would have their first girls' state title in the 4x800 meter relay (2nd relay gold since the 2005 4x100).
But in the end, this tight-knit group of good friends would have much, much more than a state title.
They would have a state record of 8:55.43. The third sub-nine 4x800 in state history (Cardinal O'Hara 8:59.81 in 1988), and exactly three seconds under the previous mark of 8:58.43 - a time that had stood as PA's best for 29 years, and even as the national record for the first 20 years of that period.
Oh, and it was also US#1 in 2011.
8:58 POINT 43. It had become the mantra for this team for almost an entire year.
Not Lott's mantra. The girls' mantra.
"These girls wanted that record more than I ever did" Lott says.
"But I can tell you that it was last year that motivated them."
As often is the case, a loss sets up a victory.
Three of the girls - then-sophomores Janie Augustyn and Michelle Tracy, and then-freshman Natalie Deacon, had come into the 2010 state meet fresh off setting a school record in winning the District 1 title in 9:16.60. It was just by a second, but it was significant.
A week later at the state meet, they ran into a buzz-saw in Conestoga… and battling until the final meter, lost a heartbreaker 9:08.58 to 9:08.93.
"Last year we got ahead of ourselves," reflects Deacon. "We beat 'Stoga at Districts, but then got 2nd at States. That was killer, because the only race that counts is the last one."
Yeah, it was another school record… but it really made the girls more than a tad angry. They were losing a valuable senior in Anna Pavone, so they wanted to start the process of finding a replacement.
Did they wait until they returned home?
They didn't even wait until noon of the same day after their loss in the state finals.
Then-junior Suzanne Sanders says that the girls texted her from Shippensburg telling her "you better run track next year."
They were serious. And Suzanne knew it.
Suzanne and Natalie are pretty good soccer players for Henderson. And Janie and Natalie ran together for a year in middle school. So the girls had been friends for awhile.
But Suzanne had never run the 800 before.
The push was on to make sure that she came out for track in 2011.
A Team First.
From all-in, all season cross country and track athletes, to multi-sport wizs and soccer specialists, this 4x800 team is not just unique in its composition, it's unique in its commitment to their event.
Junior Janie Augustyn (At 2011 District 1 - Photo by Don Rich) is a true distance runner. A member of the track team in middle school, she has run all three seasons - from cross country to indoor and outdoor track, her three years of high school.
She remembers Natalie from middle school, because the then-7th grader would beat her in the 800. Augustyn knew then she was looking at a talented athlete and future teammate.
Janie's strength, according to her coach and teammates is she loves to "mix it up." And in the 4x800, that's exactly what you do on the first and last legs much of the time. "I like lead-off or anchor because of the pressure," she says.
Junior Michelle Tracy (At 2011 District 1 - Photo by Don Rich) - who is nearly as tall as the lanky Augustyn - played soccer and basketball her freshman year; but did not go out for track. As a sophomore, she played basketball, and in the spring, joined then-frosh Deacon on the track team. This past fall, she joined the cross country team for the first time.
"I love the relay because, unlike other sports, what you do has a direct effect on how you finish… and you use all your energy at once," Tracy says.
As a sophomore, Tracy dropped from opening in the 2:30's, to a 2:17 split. She was hoping for a 2:15 this year… but got almost three seconds under that. Her teammates and coach say she has improved the most, gaining a quiet confidence that has a calming influence to those around her. She's a distance runner now, and Augustyn, for one, expects the two of them to make some noise at the front of races this fall.
Senior Suzanne Sanders (At 2011 District 1 - Photo by Don Rich) - the willing 'you better run track next year' text-recruit to this year's 4x800 squad - is a sprinter. But that came after she was a soccer star (outside mid or striker varsity all four years). She still is. In fact, she's now beginning summer training before she joins her new collegiate team at D1 Bryant University in Rhode Island in early August. Sanders did run track as a freshman, doing the 100, 200 and 400 and helping the 4x400 get to States. An ACL tear during soccer sidelined her during her sophomore year - but she joined the team as a manager in the spring.
During her junior year, she had made a commitment to her club soccer team, and did not run track. She had run indoor as a junior, but this past winter - her senior year - she wanted to have some fun, joining friends on ski trips in addition to other commitments.
As fellow soccer stars, Sanders is good friends with Natalie, and credits the team's anchor for having confidence in her that she could be very good in the 800.
Ten weeks before states 2011, she had never run the 800.
She opened 2011 with a 2:27 split at the late March Pennsylvania Track Classic. "The other girls kept telling me I could do it." Two weeks later at her home Warrior Invite, Sanders dropped to a 2:20. "I guess then I knew I was decent."
Two weeks later at the Penn Relays, she was at a 2:17 split.
The vision was taking shape.
Sophomore Natalie Deacon (At 2011 District 1 - Photo by Don Rich) is the most competitive of a very competitive group of athletes. "She'd run through a brick wall if you asked her," understates Coach Lott.
A through-and-through outside defender in soccer, Deacon did run track in middle school, and says she always loved it. So joining the team in 2010 as a freshman was "a no brainer." She also played guard on the basketball team, and has run two seasons of indoor as well.
As tough-minded as she appears, it's no surprise that she is a top defensive player on the soccer team.
And it's that kind of competitiveness that Lott says he marshaled when he asked her to visualize she and another player each 30 feet from the ball… "Would the other player get the ball?" Lott asked.
Talk with Deacon, and the answer is a no-brainer. Not in this lifetime.
It's that drive to succeed that Lott says he wants his runners to have from 600 meters on. As each girl recited from burned-in repetition… "when you hit the scoreboard, it's lights out."
It's something much easier said than done. And these girls had done the work necessary to make the "light's out" instruction a reality.
Deacon credits their lifting and core strength program for giving each athlete the arm and upper body strength to push through the pain and into a new gear.
"No one is going to be stronger than us from that point in," Deacon states matter of factly.
It was about this time last year that Deacon – the stats junkie of the group – latched onto the 8:58.43.
And Henderson assistant coach Mary Knisely - a former All-American at Delaware and professional runner - mentioned the mark to the team on occasion.
Boy did it stick. Literally.
Augustyn says the group often joked around about it. After all, it was a 29 year old record, and had been untouchable all that time.
But it eventually became the team goal. The juice that quenched the competitive spirit as each worked through a grueling workout together - trying to improve - striving for a goal that - over the season - went from dream to attainable.
It diverted attention from the pain.
It solidified the team.
It became a common bond.
And leave it to Deacon to immortalize it, albeit in post-it notes and in workout chants.
Post-it notes she had on desks, and in her locker, and shared with teammates.
It took on a life of its own.
Finding the right combination.
This is where coaching comes in. With a healthy dose of ideas and buy-in from the athletes.
In 2010, Deacon ran the lead-off; a leg she liked. Tracy ran the 3rd leg, while Augustyn anchored.
To start this outdoor campaign, Tracy was moved to lead-off, with Sanders running 2nd, Augustyn 3rd, and Deacon as anchor. Coach Lott made a shift shortly after, and moved Augustyn to 2nd and Sanders to 3rd. That combination worked well, but at Penn, while they qualified for the Championship of America with their opening 9:16.83; to the girls, their finals of 9:16.79 was not enough of an improvement. Especially in light of Strath Haven's 9:09.62 - 9:05.34 double.
The girls talked about it among themselves. Coach Lott listened.
And then he went with his gut. He put Augustyn into lead-off and moved Tracy to 2nd, leaving Sanders and Deacon in 3rd and anchor, respectively. Deacon and her teammates trusted their coach.
Deacon was especially impressed with how well Tracy adapted to the move. "She is a stud and could run any leg you put her on. And Augustyn loves pressure. So the move was a good one."
The team was set.
The only thing missing was a bit more strength for that final "lights-out" 300…. and the confidence that would put them over the top.
Again, coaching, and coachable athletes.
The sacrifice and workouts that made a difference.
One of the keys to Henderson's incredible end-of-season run was that all four girls made a commitment to each other and the 4x800 at States. Deacon did run the 800 at District 1, and qualified for States. But she scratched.
The week before the District 1 meet on Thursday and Friday May 19th and 20th, Lott had a special treat for his squad.
They opened with a hard 1000. Augustyn popped it in 3:16. The rest were around 3:25.
Five minute rest.
Then two 600's at pace (around 1:50-1:55)… a ten second rest, and then an all-out 200.
Five minutes between each 600.
The team closes each workout with an all-out 300, run one at a time. Sanders, the sprinter, usually pops the fast one, but the other three are never more than a few seconds back.
The district meet saw Henderson pull the (mild) surprise of the meet. With their final order of Augustyn, Tracy, Sanders and Deacon, they ran the last half from the front - and with Deacon holding on for dear life, they put up a PA#2 9:06.45, with Strath Haven at 9:08.89.
Lott was pleased, but the issue that concerned him the most was making sure that his girls didn't hit the first lap too hard. "That's something I've struggled with," admits Deacon. "I just want to take off."
She had run an opening 62.3 at the Penn Relays. And she did a 62.8 at the district meet. Too fast.
And at Districts it showed. The last 50 was difficult.
States would be different. Way different.
To hit the scoreboard and go 'lights out', you had to be disciplined on the first lap.
The Tuesday before States, Coach Lott pulled a workout from his book of fun. It was a workout that would tell him, and the girls, exactly where they were. He knew they were capable of getting to nine minutes. But everything had to be just right.
After warmups, of course, they started their 3 500's.
The girls would run together for the first 400 at 70-72 pace, and then hit an all-out sprint around the curve. Sanders would hit about 15 seconds for the final 100, with the other just behind.
Seven minutes rest between each.
And then the closing 300's.
Sprinter Sanders hit her usual 42. Augustyn and Deacon hit 45's.
Tracy would be last.
Assistant coach Dave Richard - a multiple record-holder from West Chester East and former LaSalle runner - gave Tracy some last minute encouragement. "He told me that this was the day to do it."
Tracy went out faster than she ever had. "I thought about states the whole way."
They all knew they were ready. Really ready.
You can learn a lot from history.
Coach Lott knows how to pick his moments. And with four girls as motivated as these, he felt the need to give them an idea of what he really expected to see on Saturday in the finals, and to remind them exactly what had kicked off this quest for the record.
For Lott, though, it was not about the record. Never was.
It was about the win. About running a smart first lap. About hitting the scoreboard and having the strength to run through a wall to another gear.
So the day before they left for Shippensburg, he showed them the tape of the 2010 race.
Augustyn described the scene.
"It upset us. We were yelling at the TV. It got us pumped."
But Lott had also shown them a bit of school history from more than a decade prior. It was from 1997 - the same year the Henderson boys had run 7:42 in the 4x800 to beat a strong North Penn team.
It was also the year of the last individual gold medalist for the Henderson girls. He showed them Cas Sadosky's winning 800.
Sadosky had been 40 meters down with 150 meters to go. Right at the scoreboard.
What happened next was "lights out." Her winning time was 2:12.68.
The only thing left for these girls was to run.
Janie Augustyn - Michelle Tracy - Suzanne Sanders - Natalie Deacon
PHOTOS BY CHARLES STONE
The prelims on Friday were uneventful. Strath Haven comfortably qualified in the first heat, going 9:16.08. And in the 2nd heat, Henderson took care of business, posting the fastest time of the qualifiers, a 9:13.22.
The stage was set.
We all know the time they ran. But it was getting to that magical mark that was the most fun to watch.
The opening laps for each of the girls were absolutely perfect. Augustyn in 66. Tracy in 66. Sanders in 65. And a very patient Deacon in 65.
The scoreboard would be toast four times during this race.
Augustyn moved quickly on the gun to lane one, with Strath Haven freshman Allie Wilson taking the lead at 300 meters. Augustyn remained in the top group with Haven, Downingtown East and Central Bucks West, when with 100 meters to go, she moved strongly from 4th to 3rd, handing off to Tracy with a split of 2:15.7. Wilson split 2:14+. "I got a little boxed in at 600 and knew Haven was ahead of me. They have been intimidating all season."
Tracy began with about the three meter deficit to Haven's 2nd leg, senior Val Wilson, and Downingtown East, and pulled even with 600 to go. At 350 meters into her race, she moved by Downingtown and pulled up on Wilson. The two got separation at 500 meters, and with 200 to go, Tracy pulled even with Wilson in lane two, and with 100 to go opened a 15 meter gap before handing off to Sanders. Tracy's split was 2:12.8. Wilson's was 2:15+. "The idea was to hang on to the Haven runner the first lap and not worry about time, and then give Suzanne the lead."
Sanders continued to open the gap she had been handed over Haven's 3rd leg, senior Katie Balmer. With 200 to go, PCN Announcer Rick Leuschner made the observation that Sanders seemed "to be in the mantra." With 100 to go, Sanders hit the lights out switch and opened up an even bigger lead, finishing with a split of 2:13.9. Balmer split 2:17+. "I did glance at the clock at 400 and thought we had never been there that fast before."
It was Deacon's turn. The crowd knew what they were possibly witnessing. The time on the clock showed the record was within striking distance. And Deacon did her job. Running totally under control, she cruised through in 65 seconds. Haven anchor, junior Hannah Grossman, gave chase. But Deacon and Henderson were on a mission. At the scoreboard, the drive began. Upright. Arms perfect. Knees driving through the line. 2:12.9 for the split.
Eight-Fifty-FIVE-Forty-Three.! Exactly three seconds better than Eight-Fifty-Eight-Forty-Three.
Haven would finish 2nd in a school and Delaware County record of 9:02.36 on Grossman's 2:14+ anchor. Central Bucks West would come in at 9:06.25, Downingtown East at 9:06.83, and North Allegheny in at 9:09.99.
When Deacon passed her 400 mark, she says Coach Richard yelled "65 - let her rip."
"When I crossed the line and lifted my head and saw the clocked paused at 8:55, my jaw just dropped."
Watching from his vantage point at 200 meters, Coach Lott did not think about time, but when he saw the lead that Sanders had, he knew they were really flying. "I watched Natalie down the homestretch, and honestly did not think about it until she crossed the line. I looked at my watch, and it said 8:55. That literally was the longest lap of my life."
Augustyn said that when she heard announcer Ron Lopresti start talking about the record halfway through the race, she started freaking out. "I was in a state of shock during Natalie's last 100."
About the only overt celebration on the infield as the group walked to the awards area were some high fives and a brief holler from Deacon. Low key. Humble. Just like their coach.
Sanders says they did their group hug and a few screams of joy on their cool-down. Natalie's sister had a cookie cake waiting for them. There was talk about an assault on the ice cream supply at Friendly's.
The following Tuesday, they were mentioned on the announcements at school. But that was about it.
They knew what they had done.
When girls that could be anchors on most any other team get together, good things happen.
Props from Strath Haven.
There were hugs and congratulations all around after the race ended. First to Natalie was Haven anchor Hannah Grossman.
The mutual respect was obvious, and genuine.
It was a special year for Haven as well. They won the event at the Indoor Championships. They took 5th at indoor nationals. They won their heat at the Penn Relays to earn a coveted plaque, and took 4th (2nd American) in the Championship of America.
And despite their seniors and anchor choosing to run individual events as well, and earning medals in those events, head coach Bill Coren said that "we would not have beaten West Chester Henderson," speculating that they may have broached the 8:58 mark if all ran their best.
"But we have three coming back (including trials frosh Kirsten Miller), and so do they."
It should be fun.
Putting it in perspective.
Eight-Fifty-Eight-Forty-Three stood from 1982 until 2011 as the PA all-time best and now 8:55.43 is US#11 All-Time. While the first three legs on that Upper Dublin squad (Baldwin, Pahutski and Crowell) were pretty incredible runners in their own right, the anchor was one Kim Gallagher, who went on to set what still stands as the all-time best in the 800 in prep history - 2:00.07. She also became a two-time Olympic medalist in the event.
Lott was circumspect when talking about the significance of surpassing such a record. "If you surpass a record that an Olympic medalist was a part of, that is pretty special. It's a compliment to the girls. It makes you feel like you're somebody. Yeah, we had a good day."
No national meet this year.
The ten-week 800 meter career of Suzanne Sanders ended on Memorial Day Weekend. After all, soccer and academic excellence are paying for college, and Bryant University's soccer team has a workout plan that Sanders has already started.
Her teammates have exactly zero problems not being able to compete is this coming weekend's New Balance Outdoor Nationals. They are all pretty pleased with their final race of the season.
And if someone betters their US#1 time this weekend, they're fine with that as well.
Janie, Michelle and Natalie - along with this year's alternates, junior Amanda Eisman and freshman Rebecca Sherry - will be back at it in 2012. And there are others coming into 9th grade or already on the team who will have a shot a taking their place on this very special relay.
"There are so many with potential. I hope the girls want to be one it. The chemistry and love we have for each other is almost like family," says Augustyn.
Janie and Michelle start summer training for cross country on Monday June 20th, where they'll be joined by Natalie - who will use the opportunity and friendship to get ready for soccer in the fall.
As for this year. the number to remember is now 8:55.43.
You can put that on a post-it note. That is if Natalie hasn't already.