By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Congratulations poured in for Robby Andrews after the UVa freshman won the 800-meter run at the NCAA indoor track and field championships in Fayetteville, Ark.
One call his father, Bob, took was from an 86-year-old retiree in Georgia, a gentleman named Bobby Thomson.
That would be the Bobby Thomson, the one who hit The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, the home run that clinched the National League pennant for the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951.
“He’s such a cool guy, too,” Robby said. “He’s really nice. He’s definitely keeping track of me.”
Thomson is his great-uncle. Which means Andrews, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., must have been an avid baseball player growing up, right?
He played a little, Andrews said, but never developed a passion for the game.
“I mean, it’s too boring, man,” he said with a sheepish smile. “Just sitting at shortstop, waiting for the ball to be hit to you, and then throw to first base. Come on. I gotta keep moving.”
Good luck keeping up with Andrews, 18. His paternal grandparents were track standouts, as were his parents. His sister runs at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and Andrews was a phenom as a prep runner in New Jersey.
He became the first high school athlete to break 1:50 in the 800 — he ran a 1:48.66 — and his impact on UVa’s program has been enormous.
In a stunning upset March 13, Andrews edged U.S. Olympian Andrew Wheating, a senior at Oregon, to win the 800 at the NCAA indoor meet. Six days later, Andrews was named ACC freshman of the year in indoor track by the league’s 12 head coaches.
He finished the indoor season unbeaten. At the ACC championships, Andrew won the 800 and ran on the victorious distance-medley relay team.
His signature race, though, was in Fayetteville. Wheating entered the 800 as a clear favorite, and his personal best in the event was more than three seconds faster than Andrews’.
“Three seconds is a huge amount of time in the 800,” said Andrews, who hopes to study kinesiology in UVa’s Curry School of Education.
Yet Jason Vigilante was convinced Wheating could be beaten indoors, and the Cavaliers’ coach told Andrews as much. The 6-5 Wheating, one of Andrews’ running idols, has long legs and a long stride, and the 800 is a two-lap race outdoors. Indoors, it’s a four-lap race on a banked track.
“Robby’s only 5-10, 5-11, and he’s got a very short compact stride, and he doesn’t have much of a back kick, so as soon as his foot hits the ground, it pops right back off,” Vigilante said. “And he can change gears so quickly, which, when you have to go into a turn, and on a steep bank, is such an advantage.”
On an outdoor track, Vigilante said, “you can see everybody a lot easier, and Wheating has a much better chance to accelerate, and he’s not going to get surprised the way he was surprised [in Fayetteville].”
Still, Andrews admits, he was skeptical.
“I don’t even know how Jason could have thought I could win it,” he said. “When you have confidence in yourself and other people have confidence in you, it does amazing things. I’m really grateful to have all these coaches.”
The strategy Vigilante and Andrews settled on was simple.
“The plan was to run in last place the first two laps,” Vigilante said, “and then on the third lap advance himself to where he has an opportunity, at least, to seek out the better athletes. And then in the last, basically, 50 or 60 meters, take the lead.”
Once the race began, Andrews said, he and Wheating “both went straight to the back. I was just running right off him. He was definitely moving a lot better than I was. He pretty much ran the perfect race, if I wasn’t there behind him. He ran very smart. Didn’t get boxed in. Just made sure that he was there in the end. I was very lucky to not get boxed in either. I was in the back. I was very fortunate to be able to move so well in the last lap, that nobody else was trying to move on that side.”
Vigilante said: “In all fairness, I didn’t think Andrew Wheating believed that anybody in the field could beat him, and that’s what he should think, as a guy who’s made the Olympic team and been an NCAA champion and is an athlete of his caliber.
“When I told Robby, ‘You’re going to win this,’ he really didn’t believe it. Which is OK. But I’ve thought for months that he could win the indoor championship.”
The race unfolded exactly as Vigilante hoped, and Andrews did his part, catching and surging past Wheating in the last 50 meters. Andrews’ kick stunned Wheating, who didn’t have time to fully recover.
Even so, the finish could not have been much closer. Andrews’ time was 1:48.39. Wheating clocked in at 1:48.40.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Andrews said. “It’s one thing thinking and dreaming about beating Wheating and all those other great athletes. But to actually do it, it’s unreal. I’m so thankful really. When I crossed the line, I was looking over to see if I beat him, and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I crossed the line before him. Wow.’ “
The outdoor season has begun, and Andrews hopes to help the Cavaliers capture a second straight ACC championship. His newfound celebrity figures to fade, at least until the NCAA outdoor meet, but the last 10 days have been a whirlwind of interviews, on camera and off, for this young man from Englishtown, N.J.
“It’s pretty cool,” Andrews said. “As Jason said, once you win a title, everyone starts looking at you differently. But I’m just the same guy. I’m trying to get through school, I’m still just a first-year.”