By Stephen Thompson, Goheels.com
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - The men's 4x400 team did something that hasn't happened at UNC in nearly two decades: Receive All-America First Team honors in a relay event. The team earned All-America status for placing fifth at the NCAA Indoor Championships on Saturday in Albuquerque N.M.
The last time a team from UNC placed that high at the national indoor meet was in 1995 when the 4x400 relay team won the event. The 1995 team holds the UNC indoor record for the event at 3:06.36. The team that ran this past weekend ran it in a fast 3:06.49, just short of the school record and good for second in UNC's history.
"This is a really special group," North Carolina assistant coach Steve Rubin said. "They grew up a lot over the course of this season and made themselves into a national force. No one outside of Chapel Hill believed at the start of this season that these guys would run 3:06. Even after Notre Dame, I don't think they got the respect they deserved nationally. This meet proved that they didn't just get lucky for one race - they can run with anyone."
The four man team of RJ Alowonle, Ceo Ways, Sean Sutton and Javonte Lipsey achieved a milestone that very few ever do, but the men can't help but think about how close to breaking the record they were.
"All-America was a great achievement, but I think we all expected a little more out of ourselves," Sutton, a junior, said. "One of our goals coming into the season was breaking the school record and coming so close to that motivates my teammates and me to focus on improving our time this outdoor season."
"It was a bittersweet feeling," said Alowonle, who runs the opening leg. "It is bitter because we could have finished higher in the standings and broke the school record, but sweet because we know that we can still run much faster."
"I think that placing fifth at nationals was a big step for the team, but I know we are not complacent at all," Ways said. "A lot of people would be satisfied with fifth but for our team it's not enough, and I think that shows the standard that we hold ourselves to."
"We walked into that meet not wanting to just do well but to break UNC records," Lipsey, a junior, said. "At the end of the day we placed fifth and fell short of the UNC record. We all know we are more than capable of shattering that record. Yes, we were tenths of seconds off, but missing that mark wasn't a failure. If anything it was a confirmation that we are the team that will break the record. And when it happens we will do it again, and again, and again. That belief system comes from the fact that none of us are even close to satisfied with what we've done so far. It's honestly not enough to just break that record. I want our record broken 50 times over."
The road to the NCAA Indoor Championship was not easy for the relay team. Injuries seemed to plague the group and the inexperience of training together was a huge concern for the team.
"We had all kinds of issues in the fall," Rubin said. "Javonte constantly struggled with back problems. RJ missed 8 weeks with an ankle injury. Ceo had two concussions from freak accidents and missed essentially the entire fall. It took a while, but we finally got everyone healthy and training consistently in time to put this team on the track together about two thirds through the indoor season. And when we did, we could see something special was going to happen."
On February 22 the relay team competed together for only the second time in the season and was lined up against some of the nation's best relay teams at the Alex Wilson Invitational. The team came in second place with a blistering time of 3:06.93, which ranked second in UNC history at the time. The time was the seventh-best mark in the NCAA this year and qualified them for the national meet.
Alowonle, Ways, Sutton and Lipsey all credited Rubin for the success of the team and the hard work he puts in to get the team to compete on a national level. A combination of a coach who cares and athletes dedicated to the coach's plan is an equation for success.
"Coach Rubin has done a really good job with our event group and we all work really well with him," said Alowonle. "I am so truly blessed that I have had all the opportunities thus far in track and field. I can only thank God and the great support staff that He has provided me with."
"Coach Rubin did a good job preparing us," Ways aid. "He gave us the tools to be confident in the race and that was the best thing for us."
"As far as preparation is concerned, Coach Rubin instilled in us the workouts and the mindset we needed to do great things," said Lipsey. "He repeatedly informed us that there is nobody in the nation we can't compete with - that the group we have right now is just as good if not better than anyone out there, past or present.
"One of the intangibles that Coach Rubin has is the amount of passion and care he has for each one of us. He does a terrific job of catering to every individual's needs on the relay team. He looks out for us and teaches us to look out for each other and build each other up. That type of bond/relationship is the type we need if we want to be the greatest we can be on the track."
This isn't the first time Rubin has coached a team or athlete to All-America or better. In all, Rubin has coached a total of 37 All-Americas and two national champions in his distinguished career as a head coach and assistant coach.
The entire relay team will be back again next season, which means Rubin has another year left to improve the team by at least 0.13 seconds to break the school record. He, along with the team, is looking forward to that goal.
"The only regret is that we didn't get that school record," Rubin said. "Breaking a 20-year-old record would have been great. But this whole group is coming back next year and you can bet that mark is going to go down."
"We saw the vision and ran after it," said Lipsey. "Michelangelo once said, 'the greatest danger for most of us lies in not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but setting our aim too low, and achieving our marks.' We don't just want to set the bar high; we want to keep pushing it higher."
While the men have established a goal of breaking the indoor record next year, they aren't overlooking the outdoor season that begins this weekend. The relay team won't compete for a couple of weeks but the group of four is optimistic about the season and feels well-prepared thanks to Rubin.