Young Tar Heels thriving on track
Fresh off a medal-rich performance at the ACC Track and Field Championships that included running the last, thrilling leg of an explosive 1,600 relay title on Saturday, fleet-footed UNC freshman Ceo Ways already was looking ahead to the Penn Relays this weekend.
But Ways, who also had silver medal performances in the 400-meter and 200-meter individual sprints, and UNC head coach Harlis Meaders have even bigger plans for the talent-loaded team.
“I’m hoping we can bring a medal back to Chapel Hill [from the Penn Relays], and then from there just go into regionals and nationals and hoping we can become All-Americans again,” Ways said.
The Penn Relays, held at the University of Pennsylvania, are the nation’s largest and oldest track event.
“The team’s ability to finish second is just a reflection of how strong the team is, how much work those kids have put in. It’s an extremely talented group of young people that love the university and are willing to go the extra mile for each other,” Meaders said.
The team’s ACC silver mirrored the Tar Heels’ second-place finish at the three-day ACC indoor competition that concluded March 1. Florida State nicked the Tar Heels for first place at both events.
The Tar Heels’ 2014 ACC finish was their highest since 1999, when they won the title, although they finished in the top five every year since.
Also winning gold for UNC on Saturday was Rilwan Alowonle, who set a personal best and recorded the third best time in the country this year at 50.23 in defending his 400-meter hurdles title.
“That’s really humbling to know that that’s the third best time in the nation. Going in that wasn’t really a goal. It was just compete, and the time will come,” Alowonle said.
Internal competition with redshirt sophomore teammate Javonte Lipsey, the 2012 winner of the event who Alowonle called “one of the better collegiate hurdlers in the nation, and a great teammate to have,” pushed them to a 1-2 finish. Lipsey’s silver time was 50.65. UNC junior Roy Smith finished fourth at 51.90, and won a bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 13.98.
Tar Heels sophomore Houston Summers won silver in the javelin throw with a toss of 65.22 meters, or 214 feet. And on the women’s side, UNC sophomore Elizabeth Whalen grabbed a silver medal in the 1,500-meter run with a time of 4:31.10.
Meaders said his 1,600 relay team’s gold medal, anchored by the freshman Ways, “was amazing” for a group whose other members are sophomores Alowonle, Kwame Donyinah, and Lipsey, who ran the first three legs, in that order.
“Those guys we’ll sort of build around them to help us maybe win the next title and put Carolina track and field back on the map on the national stage,” Meaders said.
Steve Rubin coaches the sprinters, relay teams, hurdlers, and jumpers.
“He’s done a phenomenal job of preparing those kids, and, I think, we’re going to do a great job at the national level with that same group,” Meaders said.
“We scored over 60 some points” of UNC’s total 110, helping UNC to its second place finish, Rubin said of his group. “We put it all out.”
While they worked to excel at the ACC, Rubin said it’s still early in the season and a balance has to be struck between competition and continued development of his young sprinters and hurdlers.
“These guys are all national level guys, and we’re expecting them to score well at the national level too,” Rubin said. The NCAA regionals are May 29-31 in Jacksonville, Fla., and the NCAA championships are June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore.
Lipsey’s incredible, adrenaline-fueled, come-from-behind third leg of the 1,600 relay put UNC in position to win that event.
“I knew when I got the baton I was going to have to move, and there was a little bit of traffic in the beginning, so I had to dodge some people,” Lipsey said. “The second half of that race got crowded again, and at that point I just had to decide it was time to go, it was time to run … there was no looking back.”
Lipsey said “the hype of the crowd, and the fact that everybody believed in every footstep you took” gave him momentum. “I know God carried me the rest of the way” as he burst away from the pack to give UNC a lead it would not relinquish.
“Javonte’s a fighter, and when they kind of started tussling up a little bit, I think there’s a lot of guys in that situation who would use that as an excuse,” Rubin said. “The 400 hurts. It was his second race of the day. It was his fourth race in three days, and it’s easy to make an excuse at that point and say, ‘These guys are fast and I’m going to let them go.’ ”
But Lipsey “wouldn’t let his teammates down, he wouldn’t let himself down, and Javonte only knows one speed, and that’s all out,” Rubin said. “The way he fought back at the end of that race, it’s the best race I ever saw him run, and I’ve seen him run a lot of races.”
That’s not to say the drama ended there. Ways still had to outrun Brycen Spratling of Pitt, who beat him earlier for first place in the 400-meter individual race, and the Seminoles’ speedy James Harris, who already took gold in the 400 relay.
“We talked before we went out there, and we just all said we need to run for each other, and make sure that nothing stops us from running our best,” Ways said.
“When I first got the baton it was just James Harris the whole time” he was vying with, Ways said. Then in the last five meters “I felt Brycen coming up on me, and I knew there was a potential for him to pass me, but I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Ways hit the finish line just ahead of the surging Spratling, with perhaps one exhale separating their bodies as they crossed. UNC finished at 3:05.89, Pitt at 3:05.94.
“If the meet’s still going on, we’re going to be bleeding on the track, and that says something big about our team. That says something more than about athleticism. That really says something about the character of the guys on our team,” Alowonle said.
“When you see the fight, that doesn’t just come every once in a while. That doesn’t just come on any random team,” he said. “That’s a special team.”