As they limbered up for the final event of the 2011 Conference USA Track and Field Championships, the members of the Rice Men's 4x400 relay team did their best to shake off the fatigue of two days of competition and raise their collective spirits to put a finishing touch on what had been a weekend of achievement for their teammates.
Buoyed by strong efforts in the field events, including a C-USA title for Alex Zinchenko in the shot put, the host Owls held a six-point lead over Memphis for fourth place. One year earlier, the Owls had been in third place heading into the relay, only to see Tulsa edge them by a single point in the final standings.
"It had been a great effort by the team we put together," Rice head men's coach Jon Warren said. "We had so many personal improvements by so many people. We really felt like the relay could do well to close it out, but there is always the danger of a dropped baton or any number of other things. I knew that we either had to beat Memphis or stay close to them to hold our place," he added.
While the women's 4x400 relay circled the track around them, Collin Shurbet, Jacob Owolabi, Connor Hayes and Donte Moore, knew that various personal and team goals had come down to their collective effort in their next four laps.
For Owolabi and Hayes, it was potentially their last collegiate race. For Shurbet, it was the last race before heading to California for a summer internship. For Moore, it was one last race before turning his attentions back to summer workouts with the Rice football team.
"I told them that this could very well be my last race, and there was no reason to hold anything back" Hayes recalled.
"He was pretty fired up," Moore said. "I was pretty tired after running the 200, but that didn't last long after Connor started pumping us up. We'd talked all week that we had a chance to do something special. He kept reminding us of that. He kept reminding us of all the work we'd put in and that we were ready."
Hayes had entered the weekend with tangible hopes of qualifying for the NCAA West Regional in Eugene, Oregon in either of the hurdle events. But a fall in the 400 meter hurdles in Saturday's qualifying heats put an end to his hopes in that event. A sixth-place finish in the 110 hurdles early on Sunday did not improve his chances. It was down to the collective effort of Hayes and his three teammates.
At one point, it was assumed that Houston, with the team title safely in hand, might elect not to enter their top group of relay runners. However Hayes noticed during warm-ups that Errol Nolan, who was honored with the C-USA Performance of the Meet award after winning both the 200 and 400 meters, had joined his teammates in preparation for the race. There was no doubt the field would be fast, and the competition would be fierce.
Nolan would lead off for Houston and deliver a lead to his Cougar teammates. But the Owls were equally heartened by the opening leg by Shurbet, throwing down a challenge to each of his three teammates to answer in kind.
"Collin ran a great first leg, and that was important, because Jacob really feeds off of that," Moore noted. "I knew that Connor was plenty motivated already, and that we were in for a good performance."
Shurbet had the Owls in second behind Nolan when he passed the stick to Owolabi who maintained contact with Garrett Hughey down the backstretch until a powerful move by UTEP's Anderson Mutegi near the turn allowed the Miners to become the team to chase. Memphis' Brandon Williams briefly nudged past Owolabi in the stretch, but the senior from Sugar Land regained third place as he passed the baton to Hayes.
"My goal was to keep things close and give Donte a chance," Hayes said. "I had to keep it in striking distance. I know the guy from Memphis was right on top of me, and I swerved a little to the outside to make it tougher for him to try and get around me," he recalled.
Meanwhile, Moore took his place at the start line, happy to be in a position he's loved since his earliest days of running track, the anchor leg.
"It's a part of track I have always enjoyed. I know that my fastest times in the 400 have always been on the relay. There is something about being one of four and knowing the other three are counting on you to finish it that I love," he noted. "I was just waiving to Connor to bring it (the baton) on in to me so I could get going," Moore said.
Moore had a plan for his leg, but the plan was not one that he had shared with others. He had run many races against Houston's Doug Kelley and knew he'd make an all-out effort to catch UTEP's Leon Dillihunt and at some point that early effort would cost him as the relay covered its final distance. Moore's plan was to remain relaxed and set up his final charge.
Perhaps a bit too relaxed for his family and friends in the stands, as well as his three exhausted teammates who were drawing on reserve energy to root him home.
"I was going a little nuts, yelling for him to pick it up," Hayes recalled with a smile. "It looked like he was a little too comfortable out there and the gap was getting pretty large. It dawned on me that in four years of C-USA meets, I think I had finished fourth something like six times. I couldn't believe that it might happen again," he added.
"After the race, my mother and my girlfriend told me there were sure I was out of gas," Moore said. "But I had to convince them it was all part of the plan and there was nothing to worry about."
True to Moore's prediction, Kelley's strong challenge for the lead sapped him of his speed as the race turned for home. However at that same moment, Moore looked more likely to be passed by Memphis' Nick Harold than to be a candidate for a spectacular final sprint. But that was just what he had in mind.
"Those last 110 meters were amazing," Moore recalled. "The crowd really got into it, the announcer was yelling. I felt great, concentrated on staying smooth and gave it all I had."
Moore crossed the line in 3:09.45, a nearly 3 ½ second improvement over the Owls best effort of just two weeks earlier. In their prerace thoughts, the goal was perhaps 3:11.00. The emotion of the race and the reality of the time they had achieved set off a celebration at the end of the track.
"I think I pretty much tackled Donte," Hayes laughed. "We weren't very tired at that moment and we were all celebrating."
The Owls effort jumped them all the way to 19th in the West Region, earning the foursome a berth in the NCAA West Regional and a trip to track's Mecca, Eugene, Oregon. For Hayes, it allowed him to complete a goal he'd set as a freshman, even if it was through a slightly different means.
"I was recruited to Rice for the Decathlon, and when I was a freshman (Rice assistant coach ) Casey Thom and I set a goal that I would qualify for the NCAA Championships in Eugene in 2010. Well, it's a year later, and it's a different event, but I am going to get to compete in Eugene after all," Hayes stated.
Moore will be making his second trip to the NCAA West Regional. Last year, he had already returned to his home in Manor when Warren called to tell him that a spot had opened in the 400 and since the West Regional was being held in Austin, they would make the short drive from Manor and compete. He was seeded last among the 47 runners, but despite not training in the two weeks prior to the event, improved his time to 47.71 and finished 35th. His relay split of 46.3 on Sunday night in the relay has earned him a second regional berth, fulfilling his own dream to compete at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus.
"I've grown up watching meets there, reading about the great athletes who competed there. It's really a dream of mine to get to compete there," Moore said.
The top three teams in each heat of the West Regional, along with the three next fastest times will advance to the NCAA Championships, which will be held at Drake University, June 8-11. Warren and his runners are keenly aware of how close they are to extending their seasons even further.
"There are 4-5 teams that are locks to move on, unless something crazy happens," Warren said. But after that, the difference between teams is so slight that anyone could make it. These guys are right there. They've made great strides and have worked very hard to get to this point."
For Hayes, it means another chance to confront the reality of a final collegiate race. "I'm not taking anything for granted. It's great to have this opportunity, but this race is not a reward for what we did last week. It's a chance to move on. The irony is that with the way things are seeded, we might be in the same heat with Houston and UTEP, and that's great. We like racing against those guys.... and they bring out the best in us," he added with a smile.
For Hayes, it means another chance to confront the reality of a final collegiate race.
"I'm not taking anything for granted. It's great to have this opportunity, but this race is not a reward for what we did last week. It's a chance to move on. The irony is that with the way things are seeded, we might be in the same heat with Houston and UTEP, and that's great. We like racing against those guys.... and they bring out the best in us," he added with a smile.