LEXINGTON, Ky. – On a Saturday in which countless school, meet and facility records went down, the 4×400-meter relay was arguably the most exciting event of the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet.
UK head coach Edrick Floréal has preached the importance of building team camaraderie – an emphasis, which is sometimes low on coaches’ priority list given the nature of a sport in which points are accumulated mostly during individual events – since he arrived in Lexington before last season.
Floréal’s vision has started to take root. Such was clear throughout the day on Saturday, and never more than during the women’s 4x400m relay.
The event concludes most track meet programs because of its all-encompassing team-oriented vibe, and Saturday’s relay took on elevated importance for UK given the potential to be a crowning achievement in a meet, which served as a defacto “coming-out party” for the Kentucky track and field program.
Yet the relay’s significance could not be understood without first comprehending Saturday’s opening acts.
“Typically I like to point out both guys and girls,” head coach Edrick Floréal said. “I think this weekend it’s clearly Matt Hillenbrand, Bradley Szypka for the men and Kendra Harrison and Dezerea Bryant plus the women’s 4x400m relay, Morganne Phillips and Angelica Whaley. Special mention for them on every level.”
Kendra Harrison began the day’s major fireworks in earnest by winning the women’s 60m hurdles in 7.96 seconds, which tied for the fastest in the world this season.
Just moments later, Dezerea Bryant proved herself as a world-class competitor too. Bryant finished in a dead-heat with 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist and World-Record Holder (4x100m relay) Tianna Bartoletta as both crossed the finish line in 7.194 seconds.
Late in the afternoon Bradley Szypka won his third shot put competition from as many starts this season, this time with a personal-best throw 19.43m/63’9” which ranks No. 8 nationally.
Soon after, Matt Hillenbrand defended his McCravy Meet 3,000-meter title, but the fashion in which he did so showed just how far the senior has come during his UK career.
Hillenbrand has progressed on the track especially since the start of last track season with a Southeastern Conference Mile Championship and All-America honor at 1,500 meters outdoors as major accomplishments.
Despite the recent accolades, he’d never dominated such a quality field in the manner he did on Saturday.
Taking advantage of some early pace-making by Missouri, Hillenbrand hung with three-time All-American Parker Stinson (Oregon) at the front through the middle of the race before breaking away with multiple laps to go.
Hillenbrand pulled away in dominant fashion and broke the eight-minute barrier for the first time in his career with a nation-leading time of 7:59.55. His previous-best time was 8:10.04 at the same meet last year.
“The goal we have now is just to be relevant,” Floreal said. “When people walk out of here we want them to go ‘Kentucky? Really Kentucky beat us?’ I think it is going to take people a little bit to adjust, but we are serious about being successful. How you build a successful team is just being competitive. If you compete just as hard as you can, you are bound to surprise yourself.”
With the UK women’s team riding high from those two tremendous performances, attention turned to a 4x400m relay on par with any in the country on this day. Given the high-level of competition, Kentucky certainly proved its relevance. At least on this day.
2013 Distance Medley Relay 400m leg All-American Morganne Phillips led off for the Wildcats in stellar fashion, handing Bryant the stick with a nice lead after a 52.08 split. Bryant extended UK’s lead with a 51.8 leg of her own when she handed the baton to Angelica Whaley.
Whaley kept UK in the lead, proving to doubters that UK was for real in a field that featured a defending NCAA Champion Oregon team returning three of four legs.
It was only fitting that on an afternoon in which she posted a world-leading 60h time, Harrison anchored the fastest indoor 4x400m relay by any team on earth this season with a 53.0 split.
UK clocked in at an indoor/outdoor school-record 3:33.35.
That the entire UK men’s and women’s teams were there to greet their record-setting teammates along the home stretch said plenty about the Wildcats’ embrace of Floréal’s vision.
Said team culture has allowed UK to reach a novel amount of success early in 2014, but work remains for the Wildcats. Full-on relevance is not achieved at regular-season meets, no-matter how competitive they may be.
But the 2014 Rod McCravy Memorial Meet was in-fact the most completive meet in the country this weekend.
Ten meet records were broken, with four of them also setting Nutter Field House records, an impressive tally considering the facility has hosted the SEC Championships six times.
Kentucky set four meet records itself (Harrison, Bryant, Hillenbrand 4x400m) while Kendra Harrison and the 4×4 rewrote the Field House record book.
Notable UK Results
- Allison Peare placed third in a stacked mile with a personal-best of 4:44.87, behind fellow All-Americans Megan Patrignelli (Oregon) & Agata Strasa (Florida). Cassidy Hale, Amy Hansen and Kristen Hale were 24th, 27th and 31st respectively.
- UK’s hurdles talent apparently extends well beyond just Harrison’s exploits. Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent went 1-2 in the “white” 60h final, with respective times of 8.25 & 8.27
- UK volunteer assistant coach and former All-American Keith Hayes was second to 2013 NCAA Champion Eddie Lovett (Florida) in the 60h, running 7.75. Nick Anderson and Brandon Bagley each reached the “white” 60h final, with the former finishing third (8.0) and the former placing seventh.
- Keffri Neal passed four runners on the final lap to place fourth in the men’s 800m with an indoor/outdoor collegiate best time: 1:49.0.
- Charles Moushey bettered his personal-best pole vault clearance for the second-consecutive week, this time getting over 5.07m/16’7.5” to finish 11th.