April 22, 2012

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Moments after breaking a record that stood at the University of Virginia for more than 35 years — and winning an ACC title in the process — Marcus Robinson stood on the medal stand Saturday, pumping his fist and beaming as he took in the scene around him.

On a warm spring afternoon, Robinson saw people everywhere at the newly renovated Lannigan Field, which for three days this week became the center of the ACC track and field world.

“It’s more than what I expected,” Robinson, a graduate student from Richmond, said later. “It just makes me so happy to see fans out here supporting us. There’s no words to express how good I’m feeling.”

For the first time in 10 years, UVa hosted the ACC outdoor championships, and when the meet ended Saturday afternoon, the mood was upbeat among those associated with the program. Not only did the upgraded Lannigan Field receive excellent reviews, but UVa’s teams fared better than expected.

A year ago, in Durham, N.C., the UVa women placed fifth and the men sixth at the ACC outdoor meet. In Charlottesville, the women totaled 100 points to place second — their best finish in 17 years — and the men, with 113 points, were third.

“I’m almost speechless about how well they performed,” said Bryan Fetzer, UVa’s director of track & field and cross country.

In the final men’s event, the 4×400 relay, UVa pulled off a stunning victory. Senior Kevin Anding, less than three weeks removed from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, ran the first leg, followed by sophomore Ozzie Bryan, senior Lance Roller and, finally, freshman Payton Hazzard, who with a late kick crossed the finish line first.

“Extreme upset,” Fetzer said of Virginia’s victory over favorites North Carolina and Florida State.

In addition to the 4×400 relay team, gold-medal winners from UVa were senior Catherine White in the women’s 10,000 meters, senior Erin Wykoff in the women’s discus, Roller in the men’s 800, Robinson in the men’s triple jump, and freshman Nick Vena in the men’s shot put and men’s discus.

Vena was named the ACC meet’s MVP for the men’s field events.

ACC runners-up for the Cavaliers were junior Morgane Gay, in the women’s 1,500 and 5,000; junior Sean Keveren, in the men’s 10,000; senior Andy Fahringer, who set a school record in the men’s javelin; and senior Maureen Laffan, in the women’s hammer throw.

“That was an incredible team effort, and it’s just the start of what’s gonna happen here,” Fetzer told his athletes afterward.

“It’s amazing,” said White, who also placed third in the 5,000. “People are stepping up. We’re going in the right direction.”

This has been a tumultuous year for this program at UVa. In late November, Jason Vigilante resigned as director of track & field and cross country. His successor, Fetzer, didn’t have an opportunity to meet most members of those teams until early January.

“This means a lot,” Roller said of the team’s success at the ACC meet, “because we’ve been through a lot this year with the coaching changes and all that stuff.”

To see his athletes pull together in that manner thrilled Fetzer.

“It was a complete team effort,” he said. “We had folks step up that weren’t expected to, by really anybody. But our thought the whole time, each day, was to just make the most of our opportunities, and that’s kind of what we’ve been talking about the whole season.

“We’ve been talking the whole time about the team. It’s no different than football or basketball or lacrosse or baseball, where it’s a whole team effort, and you’ve got to support each other.”

The Cavaliers had plenty of support in the stands during the meet, too. Among those cheering for Robinson was Keith Witherspoon, who in 1976 set UVa’s records in the indoor and outdoor triple jump.

“It’s great to do it with him here,” Robinson said of winning his first ACC title in the triple jump. Robinson has also won twice indoors.

At J.R. Tucker High School in Richmond, Witherspoon coached Robinson in the triple jump, and they’ve stayed in contact during Robinson’s college years. Witherspoon fully expected Robinson to leave UVa with school records in the indoor and outdoor triple jump, and Robinson surpassed his mentor in each event this year.

Robinson jumped 16.40 meters (53′ 9.75″) to win Saturday.

“It’s great that it’s my senior year,” Robinson said. “Home track meet. It couldn’t get any better.”

UVa throwers spent a lot of time on the medal stand during the meet. Vena and Wykoff collected golds, Fahringer and Laffan earned silvers, and senior Vincent Chiariello got the bronze in the men’s hammer throw.

There’s a lot of seniors in this group,” throws coach Ross Richardson said, “and I think they came to the championship ready to compete, and that’s what you expect from your seniors.”

It was a freshman, though, who might have generated the most buzz at Lannigan Field. At 6-4, 280 pounds, with a flat-top haircut, Vena is an imposing figure, and he showed this week why he was a heralded recruit coming out of Morristown, N.J.

Vena won the shot put on Friday with a throw of 19.51 meters (64′ 0.25″), a UVa record and the third-best mark in the nation this year. On Saturday he won the discus, an event for which he’s been training full time for about nine months.

“He threw a little bit of discus, but he was mainly a shot-putter in high school,” Richardson said. “We kind of decided at the beginning of the year, for the team and for Nick’s development as a complete thrower, that we should work on his discus and develop that to a really high level. We’re still in that process, but he’s done a really good job and made a significant improvement today.”

Had Vena placed third in the discus, Richardson would have been delighted. Vena’s winning throw of 54.84 meters (179′ 11″) was “a little bit of a surprise.,” Richardson said. “He’s obviously talented enough, but it was a little bit off the chart from where we were coming into the meet.”

In high school, throwers use a discus that weighs 1.6 kilograms and a shot that weighs 12 pounds. In college, the discus weighs 2 kilograms and the shot 16 pounds. Couple that with the fact that Carrie Lane, the throws coach with whom Vena expected to work at UVa, took another job early in the school year, and it’s not surprising that Vena didn’t break through in either event until this spring.

“He has matured a lot,” Richardson said. “He’s just a lot more confident. You can see it in his demeanor at the track and his preparation in the championships, and I think that showed up this weekend.”

His first year at UVa, Vena said with a smile, has “been different. I try not to worry about it as much. I came here with one focus, and that’s to succeed in school and on the track. I try to block everything else out of my head.”

Like his teammates, Vena marveled at the scene at Lannigan Field. “This is great,” he said Saturday, “especially for the ACCs. It’s all about the team today. We’re trying to get Virginia up in the standings. It’s just a great meet for me to have these performances.”

When Vena was announced as MVP for the men’s field events, the other Cavaliers chanted, “He’s a freshman, he’s a freshman.”

Anding said: “We’re going to do big things in the future.”

White will be part of that future. She has battled injuries since transferring from Arkansas to UVa in the summer of 2009, but she’s healthy again and has been granted a hardship waiver. That will allow her to compete in cross country and outdoor track at UVa in 2012-13.

The ACC meet, White said, was an incredible experience for her. “I’ve been injured for years, practically, and so it’s been a great opportunity for me to lace up the spikes. I didn’t have as much pressure on me. I could really just run and be competitive and just try to win. It was fun. I missed it so much, so this was a great return.”

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