Track & Field Heads to Penn Relays, RPI
ALBANY, N.Y. – The University at Albany track & field program enters its final week before America East Outdoor Championships, meaning the time has come on the calendar for the Penn Relays Carnival, one of the biggest meets of the year. Additionally, the Great Danes will field competitors at RPI’s Capital District Classic, which takes place on Saturday.
Last weekend, UAlbany hosted its annual Spring Classic, renamed this year for women’s program founder Bobbi J. Palma. Twenty-two teams and clubs participated in the meet this year, including competitors from Canada and Honduras.
“The weather wasn’t ideal but our student-athletes competed,” said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Roberto Vives. “They weren’t fazed by the weather and they got great results. We’re moving forward in a positive direction heading closer to conference championships.”
The home meet, normally the only one on the outdoor schedule but one of two this year due to UAlbany hosting the America East Outdoor Championships, allows the team to compete at its own facility and breaks up the rigorous travel schedule the student-athletes experience. The Great Danes have not competed in a meet on campus since the cross country team did so back in October.
“Having a home meet is important on the schedule,” said Vives. “We may look next year to either make this meet a last chance meet in May, where you’ll draw more people looking for that type of meet, or host two home meets. We do want to see it grown in Division I participation. But we are providing an opportunity for the Division II and Division III schools, the community colleges, and the Canadian and New York City club teams. But we’d like it to become a more competitive Division I opportunity.”
Two specific performances highlighted the meet, which ran for three days from April 18-20. Senior high jumper Anika Hibbard, school record holder in the event for both the indoor and outdoor season, broke her own record in the women’s high jump on Saturday, clearing a height of 5-10.75. Her previous best was 5-09.25 set in 2016.
“High jump is one of those events where you could train for years to improve two or three centimeters,” said Vives. “Anika has been highly consistent every year. This now takes her to another level. When she hits 5-10.75, now all of a sudden she's in the top 10 in the East Region, and if you finish in the top 10 in the East Region you're going to the national championships. So it's good to see this from her and she wants to repeat as conference champion, and then qualify for nationals.”
Hibbard trains in the same event group as Matthew Campbell, the men’s outdoor record holder in the high jump, and the last remaining member of the trio of Great Danes, including Alexander Bowen and Kingsley Ogbonna, who each cleared 7-00.00 in the same season. Where the men’s high jumpers have had success on the regional and national level, Hibbard is trying to do the same for the women’s program.
“They work together,” said Vives. “They’re a great group. They pull each other. Where Matthew helps Anika, he’s experienced the levels she’s trying to reach. As had Alex, and as had Kingsley. That says that the program has had a great history in the event, and a person like Anika has bought in to that mentality.”
The other top performance from the home meet was freshman Alexandria Payne setting the freshman record in the heptathlon by more than 300 points. Payne played volleyball for UAlbany in the fall before joining the track team as a late addition.
“Alexandria joined track after the volleyball season,” said Vives. “She didn’t do the traditional preseason and technique work leading up to the outdoor season, especially for the multis. But she was a state champion in high school in the pentathlon so now she’s starting to realize her potential so she’s just going to keep getting better and better.
“Having a multi is another positive about our meet,” Vives continued. “The coach of Villanova, for example, said he would come every year now. All three of his athletes had personal bests and if our meet didn’t exist they would have gone into their conference championships without having done a full multi all season.”
Beyond the two record-setters, the Great Danes put together additional top performances, including a program-first in the men’s 200m.
“Our freshman hurdler, Sophia Myers, ran a 13.74, which even thought it was windy, is a big confidence boost,” said Vives. “Chibugo Ike ran an all-time best 14.01. Chidinma Matthew was under 24 for the first time, again, windy, but still gives her a lot of confidence. And Jan Michael’s windy 20.95 was the first-ever 200m under 21 seconds in program history in any condition. His goal the whole season was to break 21 seconds. And he’ll get to run it again later in the season when you’re starting to peak and hopefully we have better weather and a warmer day. With Jan Michael, we’re still bracketing his primary event. He ran the 400m last weekend, and this week he’ll run the 4x100m and 4x400m. So when he comes back to the 200m, his primary event, I see him under 21 legally.
“I think the 4x100m relays are moving in the right direction,” Vives continued. “The men have an entirely different team than started the season, and they can still run 40.5 or so if they get it together. The women set a new meet record as a whole new team from last year. Matthew LeLiever’s 48.89 shows he’s moving in the right direction.”
While most of the action last weekend centered around UAlbany’s home meet, nine Great Danes made a trip down to the University of Virgnina to compete for the third year in the Virginia Challenge.
“In Virgina we saw a couple of people get additional regional marks,” said Vives. “Matthew JeanPierre’s 1:50 in the 800m shows he’s ready to pop something big. That was huge for him. Myles had a good comeback and breakout race in the 400m.
“Virginia is a great meet, and Coach Jones is trying to get me to bring more people down there because it’s great straight across,” Vives continued. “It’s especially good for the distance runners, because you don’t want to be doing those hardcore races just a week out from conference championships and Virginia allows them to do so two weeks out.”
This week, the Great Danes will sent their top competitors to Philadelphia for the Penn Relays, which is one of the most prestigious meets on the outdoor schedule and in all of track & field.
“We’re excited about Penn,” said Vives. “We’re bringing a good group and we’re just looking to put our best foot forward with the relays and other events we’re competing in. All of our distance people this week will be doing off events, which is a lot of fun for them. The off events and relays bring confidence for the student-athletes. Relays are fun and if they have big splits they feel good heading into their next meet. The women’s 4x100m shuttle hurdles relay is ranked first in the meet. But I told them to have fun and not worry about the pressure of the top seed. Last year our women’s 4x100m relay was the expected highlight of the meet and this year I think it will be the shuttle hurdles. And they feel it and they’re excited about it, which is good.
“Penn kind of kicks off championship season,” Vives continued. “It’s not a championship meet but it does create that atmosphere. And it comes around each year around the time a long season starts to wear on you. You’ve been training since August, you have papers due, and you’re stressed with classes and with finals on the horizon. But this type of meet, seeing world-class athletes, recharges a team.”
Penn Relays occupies a difficult weekend on the college schedule, taking place just one week before many conference championships. As a result, the meet’s significance is diminished somewhat at the college level to account for championship meet preparedness, but still holds special place in the sport, and for Vives in particular.
“This will be my 47th consecutive Penn Relays,” Vives said. “I’ve been to every one since 1973 when I ran a 4x100m for my high school, Cardinal Hayes. I haven’t missed one. I’ve gone straight through, either as an athlete as a coach. For me, it’s the one meet on the calendar I won’t miss. It’s still very, very exciting. I won’t stay through Saturday, when you see the exciting USA vs. the World events, and our teams who might make finals, because we have a team to get ready for conference, and we can’t ignore the kids who will be competing at RPI.”
Most of the team this weekend will compete across town at RPI’s Captial District Classic. For UAlbany, the meet serves as a final tune-up for next week’s championships or as a last opportunity to secure championship meet qualifying performances.
“There are still qualifying opportunities for all championships for the athletes competing at RPI,” said Vives. “It’s a low-key meet, so the athletes don’t feel the usual pressure. And it’s only 15 minutes away so it’s like another home meet. And that’s a huge advantage. Travel is cumulative. It makes you tired, and it negates early week practices. Often times you’re still recovering from Saturday’s meet, on Monday. But staying close to home eliminates those additional burdens brought on by travel.”
With championship season about to start, the focus this week shifts more towards staying healthy above everything else.
“The biggest thing this weekend is to get through both meets healthy,” said Vives. “We have 13 student-athletes in contention for regional championships. So I just want them to come through the weekend safe, with good performances, and healthy. Let’s run our events, have a good experience, and come back fresh.”
Penn Relays begin on Thursday, April 25, and UAlbany's first event will be the college division of the women's discus at 9:00 a.m. The Capital District Classic start at 11:00 a.m on Saturday, April 27.