Bringing it home
"We're ending the track season on the last possible race we can," the Rowan sophomore said to Jayce Maxwell, Ali Ejaz and Demetrius Rooks, his 4x400-meter relay teammates.
Purdue's message was clear: Let's go out and win the national championship.
And so they did.
Turning in their best individual split times of the season and working flawlessly as a team, the quartet brought home Rowan's first national championship in the 4x400 in over a quarter of a century during the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field championships at Ohio Wesleyan University.
The team turned in a time of 3:11.45 to top second-place finisher McMurray College, which finished five one-hundredths of a second behind the Profs. In winning the title, the foursome shaved a full two seconds off their time in the preliminary heat...no small feat for a group that just started running together at the beginning of the spring semester.
"After the preliminaries, we were very confident about our chances to win," says Maxwell, a junior biological sciences major who ran the first leg. "We thought, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We have to seize the moment.'"
"I didn't worry about dying out as I ran," adds Ejaz, a sophomore sociology major who transferred to Rowan this year. "I thought, ‘If you win this, you get to be the national champion.' When I saw Jayce running, my stomach had butterflies. I was so nervous. But when I got on the track, everything cleared out of my mind."
Chasing the title
Ejaz ran the third leg, setting the stage for Rooks, a sophomore sociology major who also transferred to the University this year. Individually, Rooks earned All-America status for his second-place performance in the 400-meter hurdles. Had he not tangled up his footing on the hurdles, Rowan may well have won two national championships.
Actually, Coach Bill Fritz was expecting a national championship from Rooks in the hurdles. The relay win was a wonderful surprise--and a real testament to the Profs' teamwork and dedication to their sport, he says.
Coming in, the squad was the 12th ranked team--out of 16 teams--competing for the national title. They stepped up and blew the field away. Though McMurray came on strong at the end, the Profs were in the driver's seat down the back stretch with the baton in Rooks' hands, Fritz says.
"Demetrius is basically unstoppable," says Fritz. "He has the mind and the courage to do what it takes to win."
Rooks relished the opportunity to bring home the title, especially after his missteps in the hurdles, he says.
"I'm a chaser. I like the anchor leg because it's the most pressure. I want the stick in my hand to seal the deal," Rooks says.
Fritz has seen plenty of success in four decades of coaching track and field. Still, watching the young squad-a junior and three sophomores-succeed was thrilling, he says.
"They're on the young side. They didn't know they were trying to accomplish the impossible," Fritz says with a laugh. "All four of them picked the premiere spot to turn in their best times. It was fantastic. It was amazing to sit there and watch it happen."
Looking to repeat
The team already is thinking about defending its title at next year's national championships, Maxwell says.
"As I work out, I'm thinking about doing the same thing next year," Maxwell says. "I just keep remembering that feeling."
The team also wants to set a new school record, toppling the 3:10 mark set in 1985.
"Next year, I really think we could run a 3:08," Rooks says. "We're going to stay in shape and get even better. That's the one thing we know we can control."
A mechanical engineering major, Purdue put the title in perspective as the Profs seek new goals next year.
"It was a great experience for all of us, a real challenge," he says. "But we can't take repeating for granted. We've got to keep working hard."
Repeating is difficult, but not impossible, Fritz says. He credits Assistant Coach Norm Tate, who was a member of the 1968 Olympic team, with igniting a fire under the relay team.
"He brings that competitive spirit and drive to the track," Fritz says. "And he has imparted that to our guys. They all take track very seriously."