By Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
THE FLATS – How do you know when you have taken the next step into the big-time as a program?
Georgia Tech men’s and women’s track and field faces that question this weekend.
The team believes it has the answer and that answer is it has. They’re basing that conclusion on performances in its first two outdoor meets -- the Yellow Jacket Invitational and last weekend’s Florida State Relays -- when they ripped off 16 Atlantic Coast Conference top-five times, while the men have put up six national top-10 times and nine NCAA East Region top-10s.
A large faction of the team seeks further confirmation this weekend in Gainesville, Fla., at the 2018 Pepsi Florida Relays being held on Percy Beard Track on the University of Florida campus (another went to the West Coast to participate in the Stanford Invitational and San Francisco State Distance Carnival.).
What’s not in question is the air of confidence surrounding the team. It’s the kind of air that can develop into a swagger. Senior Andres Littig has seen it and seen it take form at the Florida Relays. The year was 2015, Littig was sophomore and the Jackets not only were the TEAM to beat in the 4x800, they were the TEAMS!!
“We had two full 4x800 teams that we fielded. There were like eight or nine really solid 800 runners on the team at the time,” recalled Littig, who ran the third leg of that year’s winning team and, who so far this year has run the top 800 time in the ACC, and boasts a pair of second-place finishes. “That was a lot of fun because we were all warming up together and other schools were very aware that we were the favorites and that we also had a second team in the meet which could quite likely beat them as well. That was cool. To go there to be expected to win and to win is always cool.”
The Jackets weren’t prohibitively expected to win anything this year but they are going in expecting to.
“I think it’s just believing in ourselves,” said senior triple jumper Preston Smith, who won the triple at the Yellow Jacket Invite with a personal-best jump of 15.48m, the top jump thus far in the ACC, then followed up with a third-place finish in the FSU Relays. “The team is growing up and we’re all becoming comfortable and believing in ourselves and trusting the process. I know we’ve been putting up some good times and some good marks, especially at that first home meet but I didn’t realize exactly HOW well we’d gotten off to so far. I know it’s still early but to hear those feats is just astonishing.”
The extent of the numbers may be astonishing but the main reason for them is not. They simply believe.
“We're all very confident in each other,” said senior Gabriel Darosa, who has run in the Florida Relays since high school and who, this year, has set a PR with a 1:50.88, the second-fastest time so far in the ACC, in winning the 800 at the Yellow Jacket Invite. “We've watched our teammates put in the work and go through the pain and we've seen what everyone can do from Indoor season. That excites us because we know that the we're only gonna get better.”
The Jackets are not only getting better but also pushing to make each other better.
“This year, the group of guys that we have, they’re really quality guys,” said sophomore Benjamin Jean, who ran a personal-best 46.55 in his first 400 of the year, finishing second – the time still sits at second in the entire ACC – and has helped the 4x400 team earn a pair of top-five finishes. “They come to practice every day ready to work and the mentality that we practice with makes us all better. We’re always competing every day at practice and meets. I think it’s that environment has really helped us this season. Everybody’s so competitive and we’re just constantly pushing each other to do more, do better each and every day.”
“It’s something that the coaching staff has done great with acquiring talent so last year we had some guys that are contributing now that weren’t even in the picture, we didn’t really know were going to be here last year,” said Smith. “Now, to have everybody pushing each other and contributing and really coming together as a team is really great to see.”
The competitiveness and leadership isn’t limited to upperclassmen. It’s a complete team effort with underclassmen pushing the upperclassmen and contributing. Jean and Ty Brooks are both chipping in.
Brooks, who last year at this time was running for Evans High School in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., has a pair of top-five finishes in the 400, including the fourth-best time in the ACC, and has been stellar in his two 4x400 races, in which he runs the opening leg. Having navigated through his first semester at Georgia Tech and his first indoor season, he’s getting his legs under him.
“I think I’m getting more confident,” he added. “Especially since I broke into the 47s. I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m definitely getting better. This is a step up.’ So I’m feeling pretty happy about myself.
(The Florida Relays are) a really good place to perform well, with all the competition.”
Daniel Pietsch is at the other end of the experience spectrum from Brooks but is as new to D-I. He ran three years at Emory, dominating the 800 in D-III – he holds the 400 record both indoors and outdoors.
The senior from Wailuku, Hawaii, who debuted by running the third-fastest time in the ACC – just behind teammate, Jean – knows a little bit about riding waves and believes that the Jackets are doing that right now, riding a cresting wave of confidence from their successful indoor season.
“It seems to me like we’ve just taken the momentum off the end of the Indoor season, where we all kind of were coming to a peak at the same time and we’ve just gone off of that,” Pietsch said. “We’ve all had really successful starts to the outdoor season, which has been really cool. We’ve all had an attitude where we’ve been ready to work hard at practice and at meets and just keep going. A lot of us got that little taste of success at the ACC Indoor meet and so just continuing from that is probably the biggest thing.”
Littig credits getting that taste of winning for the fast start but also gives props to the individual team members. He’s noticed a trait that is understood to be present in those working on the track yet isn’t necessarily associated with track and field.
“Part of what lends itself to the team running a lot better recently than we have in years past is an effort to just be tough,” he said. “Early in the season, when you’re not as fit as you might be, a huge aspect of running well is heart and deciding that you’re willing to hurt and give it your all.
“I think it’s a difference in mindset as a team,” he added. “While we’ve had a lot of individual success from various people over the years, there hasn’t necessarily been a concerted effort as a team to try to achieve. There are a lot of things that go into that. It starts with coach (Alan) Drosky, coach (Grover) Hinsdale, coach (Becky) Megesi. There’s been a real push for team unity and that’s not just a social thing. When some guys are doing well and competing well or some ladies are running really well, the whole team unity thing means helping others to also rise to the occasion and compete well.”
Sustaining success is the key now.
“The fact that we have such a young group having such success this early is really encouraging for the road ahead,” said Jean. “It’s great but at the same time I know there’s more to be done. I’m running a little bit better. So just keeping that in mind, there’s always more to be done.”