April 26, 2011

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

DURHAM, N.C. — It’s not unusual to look around Wallace Wade Stadium during a Duke home football game and see thousands of empty seats.

Nor was the 33,941-seat stadium ever close to filled during the ACC outdoor track and field championships held Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Duke. The atmosphere at the ACC meet promises to be more electric in 2012, when UVa will be the host school.

Lannigan Field isn’t nearly as big as Wallace Wade Stadium. Fans will be closer to each other in the stands, and that should pump up the volume during races.

Moreover, the University will have a new track by then, thanks in large part to a $5 million gift from alumna Amy Mitchell Griffin. Work on the first part of a two-phase project will begin next month and is scheduled to be completed by next year’s ACC meet.

If only Stephanie Garcia had another year of eligibility. Alas, she’s a senior.

“Obviously, I’ve run on the track we have now for years, and I do love it,” Garcia said Saturday, “but it would have definitely been a great experience to be in a new stadium and to try to bring home the title there.”

For Garcia’s younger teammates, such as Anthony Kostelac, the knowledge that the ACC meet is coming to Charlottesville will drive them for the next 12 months.

“From now on, we’re all going to train super hard, and we’re hoping to win that meet next year,” said Kostelac, a freshman who starred at Albemarle High School. “We’re going to go 1-2-3 in the 800, and it’s going to be awesome.”

The Wahoos went 1-2 in the 800 meters at Duke, with Kostelac surging late to beat junior Lance Roller, the defending ACC champion in that event.

Kostelac also won the 800 at the ACC indoor meet. He’s only the seventh runner in conference history — and the second Cavalier, along with Paul Ereng (1989) — to win both events in the same year.

“I had to maintain contact with Lance, otherwise he would have run away from me,” Kostelac said. “He went out really hard, and I applaud him for that. It’s really tough to do.”

The UVa women totaled 62.5 points to finish fifth at the ACC meet. With 67 points, the Cavaliers placed sixth on the men’s side.

Neither performance satisfied UVa’s director of track and field/cross country. In 2008-09, his first season at UVa, Jason Vigilante guided his men’s team to a share of the ACC outdoor title. So the weekend in Durham was bittersweet for him.

“I hate to lose,” Vigilante said Saturday. “I have a hard time with anything less [than victory], but at the same time I also understand we’re growing, and our expectations are really high. So I’ve got to be reasonable.”

Virginia had two individual champions in Durham: Garcia in the steeplechase and Kostelac in the 800.

Placing second from UVa were Roller (800), sophomore Robby Andrews (men’s 1500) and junior Maureen Laffan (women’s hammer throw).

Four Cavaliers placed third: senior Adams Abdulrazaaq (men’s 110-meter hurdles), Andrew Mearns (men’s steeplechase), junior Morgane Gay (women’s 1500) and junior Tara Karin (women’s javelin).

The list of All-ACC performers from UVa easily could have been much longer. But for various reasons — some are redshirting, others are injured — Virginia was missing such notables as Marcus Robinson, Emil Heineking, Ryan Collins, Sintayehu Taye, Kevin Anding, Patrick Todd, Catherine White and Lyndsay Harper.

“I think there’s four or five ACC champions that aren’t here, and that really changes things,” Vigilante said. “It changes things obviously in a points way, but there’s also an intangible change. You have these guys that everybody looks to as their leaders, and when they’re not there, there’s a huge void.

“But we’re finding new people to step up, whether it be Maureen Laffan, who had a huge personal best today in the hammer throw, or Anthony Kostelac, who’s a first-year and now a two-time ACC champion. So there’s a lot of pressure that I put on myself, and I can’t forget that this is fun. But at the same time we’re very, very competitive people. We’re getting there.”

His program includes a national champion. Andrews won the NCAA title in the indoor 800 as a freshman in 2009-10.

Andrews redshirted in cross country and indoor track this school year while recovering from plantar fasciitis. At the ACC meet, Vigilante entered him in an event in which Andrews rarely has competed — the 1500.

The meet record was 3:43.52. Andrews smashed that mark, finishing in 3:40.77, but his trademark late kick couldn’t get him past Florida State’s Ciaran O’Lionaird, who won in 3:40.69.

By comparison, UVa’s Taye won the 1500 at the ACC outdoor meet in 2010 with a time of 3:59.96.

It didn’t help Andrews that he was unfamiliar with O’Lionaird, a transfer from Michigan.

“You’ve got to adapt in each race, that’s part of racing, but it’s definitely more difficult to know when to move when you haven’t raced somebody before,” Andrews said. “When you’re racing [former Oregon star] Andrew Wheating or something, you know what he’s going to do.”

Andrews waited a few moments too long to make his move on this final lap. With 125 meters left, he trailed O’Lionaird by about 30 meters. Had the race been just 5 meters longer, Andrews would have been crowned champion, but he refused to make excuses afterward.

“Just live and learn,” Andrews said. “You can’t say, ‘What if?’ It’s a learning experience, and it’s just part of racing. It’s fun. You want to see how you can get better as an athlete.”

Laffan, who like Andrews is from New Jersey, threw the hammer 181 feet, 7 inches — by far the best effort of her career — to move into second place on UVa’s all-time list.

“I came in to ACCs wanting to get a personal record and wanting to qualify for regionals,” Laffan said. “I achieved both of them, and it was really exciting.”

She’s excited, too, about trying to win an ACC title at Lannigan Field next year.

“I think everyone who has this big of a track meet at their home wants to do well and wants to win it on their home turf,” Laffan said. “For me and for the rest of the team, it will definitely have a large effect on how we perform there.”

Andrews said: “This year we might not have done as well as a team as we could have. We’re redshirting some guys, and some guys aren’t running because they want to come back next year for a fifth year.

“Everybody wants to do well next year. We’re excited about having a nice track with some nice stands and just really coming out to compete. Let’s fill up the stands with Charlottesville folks.”

Vigilante noted that “so many people have worked so hard for us to get a new facility,” from Craig Littlepage to Jon Oliver to Amy Mitchell Griffin. The ACC meet will be an opportunity for the team to thank them for their support.

“We want to do very well,” Vigilante said.

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