By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His closing speed is fast becoming the stuff of legend, as is his competitive streak. So it was no surprise to see Robby Andrews surge past Penn State star Casimir Loxsom to clinch the Championship of America title for UVa at the 117th Penn Relays in Philadelphia.
“Robby won that race because he wasn’t going to lose,” said Jason Vigilante, Virginia’s director of track and field/cross country. “The other kid is really good, but Robby beat him.”
In front of nearly 50,000 fans, the race had begun in less dramatic fashion for the Cavaliers, with the baton in the hand of Brett Johnson, another sophomore. To Johnson, Vigilante had delivered a simple message before the 4×800-meter relay at the University of Pennsylvania’s historic Franklin Field.
“He told me, ‘You can never win the race on the first leg, but you can definitely lose it,’ ” Johnson recalled Tuesday afternoon at UVa’s Lannigan Field.
Johnson played his role perfectly Saturday, keeping the Wahoos in the lead group. They stood fourth in the 12-team field when he handed the baton to junior Lance Roller. They were in second when Roller handed it to freshman Anthony Kostelac.
UVa and Penn State were in a virtual dead heat for first when Kostelac handed off to Andrews, in whom his teammates have supreme confidence.
“It’s just a gimme,” Kostelac said.
Andrews might tell you otherwise. He won the 800 at the NCAA indoor championships as a UVa freshman, but Loxsom twice finished ahead of him last summer: first at the U.S. junior championships in Iowa and then at the world junior championships in Canada.
“I was better prepared this time,” Andrews said.
He was also healthier. Plantar fasciitis kept Andrews from competing for the Cavaliers during the fall and winter seasons this school year. In Philly, though, he showed the explosive kick for which he’s renowned.
“I wouldn’t want anyone else in the country on the anchor,” said Johnson, who has trained with Andrews since they were schoolboys in New Jersey.
In the final 125 meters, Andrews bolted past Loxsom to make sure the ‘Hoos repeated as champions. UVa’s time of 7:12.15 broke the school record and was the second-fastest ever at the Penn Relays. (Penn State ran 7:11.17 in 1985.)
“My teammates were on the inside of the track, and with 400 meters left I could hear them screaming, ‘You got it! You got it!’ ” Andrews recalled with a smile Tuesday.
A year earlier, he had outkicked Oregon’s Andrew Wheating, a U.S. Olympian, on the last leg to secure a stunning victory for UVa at Franklin Field.
“That year we went in as a sleeper team,” Roller said. “No one expected us to win.”
And for good reason, according to Vigilante. “We had no business winning that race with the lineup that Oregon put out there,” he said, “and last year all four guys in the Penn State lineup qualified for the NCAA indoors. That’s unheard of.”
Yet somehow the Cavaliers prevailed in 2010, winning in 7:15.38, thanks in part to Roller’s scorching second leg (1:46.67). From that team, Vigilante had to replace Alex Bowman, who ran the first leg, and Steve Finley, who ran the third.
Kostelac was a senior at Albemarle High last spring. Johnson was recovering from a stress fracture that limited his participation as a UVa freshman. Both desperately wanted to join Roller and Andrews on the 4×800 team that would defend its title at the Penn Relays.
“I knew we had a really good chance to win,” Johnson said.
Everybody else knew it too.
“This year we came in probably as the favorites,” Andrews said. “Even though Penn State returned all their guys, we kind of had the target on our backs.”
A week earlier, at the ACC outdoor championships, Kostelac had won the 800. Roller and Andrews had placed second in the 800 and 1500, respectively. That meet was held in Durham, N.C., where sparse crowds didn’t come close to filling the stands at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium.
The final day of the Penn Relays, by contrast, drew a crowd of 48,836 to Franklin Field.
“It’s electrifying,” Roller said. “You get this huge rush when you see all those people in the stands.”
Of the members of UVa’s 4×800 team, only Roller did not compete at the Penn Relays while in high school. But he’d been to the meet with his grandfather as a spectator many times and so, like his teammates, appreciated the spectacle that is the Penn Relays.
Kostelac said: “It’s like a football game, but it’s actually for a track meet. It’s quite an experience, one that not many runners get to experience.”
Did Vigilante worry that the huge crowd would rattle his runners? He shook his head.
“If you’re the guy who we think you are, it better make you run faster, because you know this is Saturday afternoon at the Penn Relays,” Vigilante said. “This is, in our sport, just about as big as you’re gonna get.”
In many ways this has been a frustrating school year for UVa track and cross country. Injuries have hindered both programs. The victory in Philly, then, was a reminder of what the ‘Hoos can accomplish with a full complement of athletes.
“Absolutely,” Vigilante said. “Some track meets are set up to be time trials, and it doesn’t matter what place you get, just how fast you run. I’m not interested in that at all. I’m interested in competing and winning.
“You win the race at Penn, and you stay on the infield and you get a big trophy and you get to take a victory lap. I feel bad for the Penn State guys. They ran awesome, and they’re [less than a second] behind us, and the Virginia kids, they hold up the trophy, and the Penn State kids are told, ‘Get the heck off the track.’ But that’s the difference between winning and losing.”