Inside Franklin Field, girls from more than 300 high schools are bouncing around in anticipation of the 4x100 relays. But as each team makes its way from the crowded paddock towards the storied track, the girls’ easy confidence turns into nervousness.
Swenson Arts and Technology’s 4x100 team is no exception. After three years and two state titles, seniors Anthonia Ballard, Vanessa Mack, and Khristy Neou, and juniors Jayee Wright and Shanae Bailey would like to believe they have seen it all.
But injuries, disappointing performances, and a lack of practice time have been taking their toll. Now, the blustery April weather is making the girls’ lack of warm-up time a worrisome new concern.
By the time Wright takes her mark, Swenson coach Dean Lent is almost too nervous to watch.
“I love running relays,” says senior Anthonia “Mouse” Ballard.
“You have three other people feeling the same pain you’re feeling.”
Lately, it has been Swenson’s opponents who have suffered. The two-time defending state AA champions set a new Pennsylvania AA state meet record in 2007, then broke their own mark in 2008.
This year, they are focused on defending their title on May 22 at Shippensburg University.
A third consecutive state championship would be the culmination of an amazing rise for the small high school in Northeast Philadelphia. The girls’ track team was in its infancy when the current seniors started 9th grade.
Of the three girls, only Mack had a strong track pedigree.
Ballard had run only briefly. Neou “couldn’t walk and chew gum” as a 9th grader, jokes Lent.
But the girls had potential, and the arrival the following year of Wright and the ultra-talented Bailey completed an impressive nucleus.
Lent also had an established record of success. An accomplished runner, Lent started coaching track at Father Judge in 1988 before moving on to Nazareth Academy and Ursinus College. At Swenson since 1995, he is also the school’s dean of students and athletic director.
The biggest challenge in building Swenson’s program, he says, was developing a culture of success.
“We really had to change the mindset of the kids to stay after school, to practice every day.” The first step was convincing Philadelphia coaching legend Tim Hickey, who oversaw William Penn’s outstanding teams for almost 40 years, to come out of retirement as a volunteer assistant.
From there, the two focused on getting the team into weekend meets and invitationals. The excitement of traveling and the improved competition provided extra motivation to the girls.
Lent says that in 2007 it became clear that the coaches “had a group of kids who could run with anyone in Pennsylvania.”
Jayee Wright began that year unaware that Swenson even had a track team. Within months, she found herself starting the 4x100 relay team at the state championship meet.
Ballard was the second leg, followed by Mack. Bailey anchored the team.
“We dropped the baton in the prelims,” Wright recalls.
The most difficult part of the sprint relays, baton exchanges, require tremendous practice and trust. Mack and Bailey, who had run together in the track club scene, have a natural chemistry. For the rest of the girls, however, the exchanges were not automatic.
Normally, a dropped baton means elimination. But Swenson was able to recover quickly enough to secure the last lane in the final.
There, they set their first state AA meet record.
At the start of this year, Swenson seemed poised to dominate the 4x100 again.
But a lingering groin injury weakened Bailey, keeping her out of some meets and practices.
Then, Mack aggravated a hamstring injury, leading to the team’s disappointing third-place finish at the Great Valley Relays and leaving Mack unavailable for the Penn Relays.
This meant the critical final baton exchange was in the hands of fill-in Khristy Neou.
But rain early in the week left little practice time.
Come race time, the team managed to cast these worries aside.
Exploding out of her start in the seventh lane, Wright caught two runners that were inside of her.
On the first straightaway, Ballard began pulling away.
Neou, running the third leg, knew she had been staked to a big lead and that she just had to secure the exchanges.
Though admittedly nervous, she ran flawlessly. By the time she cleanly passed the baton to Bailey, only the margin of victory was in question.
Bailey closed strong, crossing the finish at 49.24 seconds – good for first in their heat, 16th place overall, and a spot in the Tri-State race on the closing day of the Penn Relays.
There, bad luck reappeared. A fall by Ballard led to a last-place finish and yet another injury.
“We haven’t been able to catch a break all year,” Lent says after the impressive day one performance. “But on a day when there was every reason to run slow, we ran as fast as we could.”