KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany - The expectations going into the girls' 3,200-meter relay on the first day of competition Friday at the DODDS European Track and Field Championships was that a new victor would be crowned, even with a team from Patch toeing the line.
"We thought they lost their strongest runners" said Kaiserslautern senior Shanice Harmon, who anchored the Raiders third-place relay team.
Patch was the two-time defending champion, but the Panthers were missing two of the four runners from the team that set the DODDS- Europe record last year in 9 minutes, 50.76 seconds.
So what did the Panthers do? They plucked runners who specialize in other events. Sophomore Michelle Gelacio runs distance, typically the 3,200 meters. Gabrielle Garcia, also a sophomore, had never run anything longer than the 400 meters – one lap around the track.
A week ago, Gelacio tested her speed and Garcia stretched her endurance, joining veterans Kelleen McGuinness and Julia Lockridge to form Patch's new 3,200-meter relay team.
They qualified for Europeans a week ago, and on Friday, they defended Patch's title. They didn't get another record. But their time of 10:17.76 was fast enough to hold off surging Ramstein and Royals' middle-distance ace Madison Morse, who passed runners from Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden and closed the gap on Patch on the anchor leg.
"We were nervous," Lockridge said. "We were along the lines of hoping for third."
Harmon tried to take the lead headed into the race's last lap but she couldn't shake off Lockridge, who clocked a 2:24 for two laps.
Another defending champion, Vilseck senior Armando Saldana, tried for the gold medal in the boys' shot put but couldn't surpass Ramstein senior Drake Harness, who lobbed what would end up being the winning throw on one of his first attempts.
Harness' heave of 45 feet, 4.25 inches was a personal best, but he couldn't relax until Saldana was done, the memory of last year, when Saldana defeated Harness on his last throw by about 3 inches, still too fresh.
"I know he likes to hold it back until the end," Harness said of Saldana.
True to form, Saldana saved his best for last again Friday, but this time, his mark of 45 feet, 1.5 inches was about 3 inches too short.
"It feels pretty good," Harness said of his first European title.
Another first-time individual winner was Kaiserslautern senior Michael Close in the 1,600. Close held off the Wiesbaden dynamic track duo of seniors Kelsey Thomas and Alex Wieman to run a personal record of 4:29.84.
With Thomas and Wieman taking the race out hard, Close said he decided to hang behind them for the first two laps and then try to break it open on the third lap. When he took the lead, Thomas and Wieman weren't able to reel him back in.
Close tried to add another gold in the 800 meters, but he couldn't fend off the fresh legs of Marymount's Riccardo Cirilli, a sophomore whom none of the other runners had heard of until he sprinted to the lead with about 200 meters left in the race to clock 1:59.14.
"I've never seen him before," Close said. "I expected Kelsey (Thomas) or Dustin (Morton) or someone" else to be up front.
It was Cirilli's first race at the DODDS European championships. He moved to Rome from Australia at the beginning of the year – and now he's no longer an unknown in DODDS track circles.
After the 800, Close asked him what he was running on Saturday, perhaps relieved to hear he wouldn't be seeing him in the 3,200.
Other winners Friday included:
- Patch junior Christopher Ferguson cleared 6 feet in the high jump to take first. His unlikely challenger was Vilseck sophomore Michael Zokou, who didn't figure to be a contender coming into the meet since he had one of the lower seedings and was only invited as a wild-card entry.
But Zokou found some springs in his feet and also cleared 6 feet; the win went to Ferguson because he had fewer total misses. "I guess I was just fired up today," Zokou said. "Being a wild card, I didn't even think I had a chance" at medaling.
- Speaking of springs, Ramstein senior Jamael Kingsberry discovered he had some after giving track a try for the first time this year. After winning the boys' long jump on Friday, he was wishing he had come out for track sooner. What was he doing before? "Last year, I was just messing around, playing basketball." He decided to do track because "I needed something to do. I was tired of just sitting around."
- Kaiserslautern senior Rhea Harris leapt to a mark of 34 feet, 10 inches in the triple jump, beating Alconbury freshman Olivia Sealey.
- The gold medal in the girls' discus was bittersweet for Bamberg junior Damonique Lamons. With the school scheduled to close after this school year, it may be one of the last times a Bamberg track and field athlete takes the podium, something not lost on Lamons. "I just had the motivation of going out there and representing Bamberg for the last time," she said. Lamons hit 106 feet, 8 inches to edge Eliska Volencova of AFNORTH by about 2 feet.
- Though the endurance slog of eight laps known as the 3,200 can be boring to watch, especially if the runners are spread out and get lapped, that wasn't the case for the girls' final Friday. After four laps, a tight pack of four runners held the lead.
Harmon, of Kaiserslautern, was the first to surge with about three laps to go. With about one lap to go, Lakenheath's McKayla Boden passed Harmon, only to be passed by a determined Harmon on the next curve. But Boden found a second wind and legged it by a fading Harmon down the final stretch to win in 12:08.27, about 40 seconds faster than her seeding.
Harmon was second in 12:11.22, followed by Gabriela Elliot of Wiesbadan, 12:13.98.
Boden said she almost let Harmon have the race. But, "I worked hard this season. I could see I was gaining on her. I could hear the crowd" so she went for it.
Harmon said she didn't expect to see Boden again after passing her. "From experience, I know usually when you break a runner, they're usually behind you," Harmon said. "But with Europeans, anything's possible."
The second and final day of the championships is Saturday at the Kaiserslautern High School stadium. Field events begin at 11 a.m., followed by the first running events at 11:30 a.m.