This article appears in the April 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
When this many guys come together to run this fast at this many distances, you'd expect to encounter a bunch of robots. Running relays like relays are run by the Simon Gratz boys' track team requires too much precision to leave any room for personality.
But when you corral the Bulldogs' magnificent seven in the same room and actually talk to them, it's instantly clear how completely the reverse is true.
To run this fast and pump out three relays that were among the nation's fastest this indoor season — finishing second in the 4x200 (1:27.13), second in the sprint medley (3:31.68) and fourth in the 4x400 (3:19.49) at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships in New York in March — you gotta have tons of personality. And you gotta be all heart.
You have to have policemen like junior twins Kenneth and Kevin Talley, who not only scorch the track in the 200 and 400 but also help keep everyone else in line. You need comedians like junior quarter-miler Gourdie Corbin and half-miler James Farrell, the team's only senior, who together keep the boys busting up.
A relay assemblage of this caliber also needs a drama dude — a guy who's always got some ailment or obstacle that needs attention. That part is played by freshman 200 and 400 man Khaliff Featherstone. And, by the way, once drama time is over, the rookie delivers the goods, as evidenced by his indoor individual state title in the 400 this winter.
The rest of the crew has its function, too. The "new guy" is junior 200 and 400 runner Markise King, who transferred in this year from Dobbins-Randolph. The "quiet guy" is junior 200 talent Raishine Turner, who fills the role of "just one of the guys" to perfection.
Individually, they're just a bunch of fast guys. Collectively, these seven make up the best collection of scholastic relay teams in the country. That's a point they made this past indoor season and aim to prove emphatically this outdoor season.
"We pay a lot of attention to details, and we watch a lot of video — that's a big key," says Simon Gratz 14th-year track head coach Robert Massie, a former Bishop Neumann and Villanova University sprinter and jumper. "After every run, the guys critique each other and the coaches critique the guys. It's a real family sort of thing."
That's a perfectly reasonable explanation of any good relay squad. But these guys are remarkable. So what's the secret?
"The only secret is that we come to practice to work," says the 5-foot-11, 169-pound Kenneth Talley, 17, who runs the lead leg of the 4x200 and the second leg of the 4x400. "I think to have a good relay, you've got to be friends. We sit together for lunch. We do everything together. If we keep executing every time we go out on the track, there's no telling what we can do."
Fair enough. Now that we've established personality as a big part of what makes this program tick, it's not outlandish to think that the skillful integration of those characters might foster a unique bond. A sense of belonging. But that still doesn't make anyone any faster.
"Yeah, but it helps you know each other better, and that might lead to good anticipation in a relay race, and that can make you faster," says the 5-foot-8, 140-pound King, 16, who runs the lead leg of the 4x400 and the third leg (200 meters) of the sprint medley (400-200-200-800). "There's no secret. We just practice hard every day. I just came in as a transfer, but they welcomed me right in. Everybody has the same agenda here. Everybody's here to work hard."
The "Regular Joe" of the group, Turner, figures the team's success is a combination of its obsession with technique and devotion to one another.
"We work on eliminating the little mistakes," says the 5-foot-9, 140-pound Turner, 18, who is the 4x200 anchor and runs the 200-meter second leg of the sprint medley. "Plus, nobody complains. Nobody talks behind anyone else's back. We step up for each other. We have no reason to be scared because we can only beat ourselves that way."
For the record, nobody did beat Simon Gratz at the Pennsylvania Track & Field Coaches Association indoor state meet this winter. Led by wins in the 4x200 and 4x400 relays, the Bulldogs also captured the team state title.
Surely, preparation is the determining factor. The Bulldogs' secret must be some insane preseason boot camp. Wrong. Though it is fair to say the program's national relay prominence in 2005 is built upon a solid foundation.
"We all started off running cross country in late August," says Massie. "As I'm sure you know, sprinters don't like cross country. But some guys actually competed. Featherstone and Farrell were All-Public League selections. The guys that didn't race just trained with us and traded some of the mileage for hill work. By the time we got indoors for track, we had a good base and the guys were really strong."
"I think the key has been our commitment throughout this whole year," agrees the 5-foot-11, 169-pound Kevin Talley, 17, who runs the 4x200 third leg and the 4x400 anchor. "Since all the way back to cross country season, the coaches have been telling us that if we train hard, we can be unbeatable. In the end, these relay teams are really all about heart."
Ah, the sheer will to outdistance the competition. It's a trait more commonly associated with cross country since sprinting has so much to do with the uncertainties of starts, leans at the tape and microscopic mistakes.
But these Bulldogs insist their times are tiny because their tickers are titanic.
"Basically, I think we just have more heart," says the 5-foot-11, 145-pound Farrell, who turns 18 on April 18 and runs the 800-meter anchor leg of the sprint medley relay. "We don't let the pressure get to us, either. We try to keep the tension down."
At press time, Farrell was entertaining recruiting interest from Lock Haven University, the University of New Orleans and Southern University (La.).
Meanwhile, the team's youngest relay standout thanks his lucky stars for the Bulldogs' unique blend of rivalry and camaraderie.
"It's been a great run," says the 5-foot-10, 155-pound Featherstone, 16, who runs the second leg of the 4x200 and the third leg of the 4x400. "We compete against each other in practice as if we were on different teams, then we put it all together on the track when we run a relay. The upperclassmen on this team are unbelievable. I'll be all nervous and doubting my abilities, and they just pick me up. They don't even understand how much they help."
In the final analysis, it becomes evident that Simon Gratz's relay success doesn't come in spite of the team's melting pot of personalities, but rather because of it. Just ask Corbin, the final member of this magnificent seven.
"This team is successful because of the teammates' relationships," says the 6-foot, 175-pound Corbin, 17, who runs the sprint medley's 400-meter lead leg. "My teammates energize me and help me improve. Plus, we have the best coaching staff around. They train us to run our best."
Which is exactly what the Simon Gratz relays do.