April 25, 2003
PHILADELPHIA and LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tennessee's sprint medley relay turned a lackluster day into highlight material with a stunning victory against South Carolina to close Friday night's action at the 109th Penn Relays on Franklin Field. The Vols' sprint medley relay, not a race Tennessee contests often, came up with a diamond of a performance and a 3:14.41 time courtesy of four solid legs by Sean Lambert, Jonathan Wade, Dwayne Bell Jr. and Marc Sylvester in front of 35,003 track fans.
In the "City of Brotherly Love" where history perfumes the spring air, Tennessee added another chapter to its storied track and field history with its fourth all-time sprint medley relay title at Penn, the others came in 1967, 1992 and 1994. The Vols' 3:14.41 steamer stands as the program's fastest since the school-record time of 3:13.28 at the Penn Relays. The sprint medley victory marks Tennessee's 29th Penn Relay "Championship of America" since 1966, the third-best total of any school. The Vols have won 67 times across all events since 1949 at the Penn Relays.
"It was a total team effort -- solid from beginning to end," assistant coach Vince Anderson said. "Coach Watts thought we had a chance to win if Marc had a slight lead or was in contention. He had a slight deficit to begin, but he was completely focused the whole way and was able to make up the deficit with a winning charge with 170 meters to go."
Lambert's lead-off leg took Tennessee to first by a small margin. True-freshman Wade took the baton on the second leg and built the lead when he handed off to Bell. Bell ran a good leg and kept the Vols in the mix, but handed off to anchor Sylvester with a fraction of a deficit. The 800m anchor leg set up a showdown between NCAA 800m leader Otukile Lekote of South Carolina and Tennessee's Sylvester. Lekote went out fast and opened up a 3-5 meter lead. However, Sylvester closed the gap and overtook Lekote in the middle of the last curve passing the Wall of Fame in the south end of the track. With a .38 of a second victory margin, Sylvester held off Lekote's charge down the straightaway running toward the northeast corner of the stadium which flies Tennessee's familiar power 'T'-emblazoned flag. Tennessee is one of the few schools to enjoy having its flag flown over the Penn Relays every year because of its long-standing history at the meet.
"Just look at the people out there," Sylvester said. "Those are tremendous runners. I might have gone out a little harder than I normally do. On the backstretch I knew I could make a move. I said it's now or never. I thought I've got to take this thing to the finish. I came across the line and stopped and threw my hands up. The three guys I had before me [Lambert, Wade, Bell], I have all the confidence in the world in them. It's in the history books now, and you can't take that away. Now when I go in the locker room and look at all those Penn Relays trophies that guys like [former Vols] Jose' Parrilla and Willie Gault won, I know what it feels like to join them winning something so prestigious."
Adding to the history-rich nature of the day, former Vol great, former coach and 1973 Penn Relays steeplechase champion Doug Brown sat with some of the Tennessee athletes watching the race. In a sidenote, Tennessee's sprint medley relay members were randomly assigned the bib letters "AF" for the race. Their teammates noted that could have been the winning edge, as "AF", standing for "All Family", became Tennessee's victorious battle cry at the drought-breaking 2001 NCAA Outdoor Championships after the Vols were near hopelessly down to sprint power TCU at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
"I've never run on a big relay team," Wade said. "This title is very important and special to me. I definitely look forward to doing it again next year. Seeing and talking to Justin [Gatlin] before my race was encouraging."
Not all the history went back decades, as one familiar face from last year showed up to cheer on the Tennesseans. Former Vol and current world champion Gatlin was on hand for the USA vs. the World relays Saturday and a press conference promoting the showdown Friday. After just three professional races and a world title, Team USA called Gatlin's number for Penn duty. Gatlin took some time out from signing autographs to watch his teammates in the shuttle hurdle relay. Gatlin is slated to run on the USA's 4x100m and 4x200m relays Saturday. After the shuttle hurdle race, Gatlin and some of the Vols posed for a photo with legendary track fan and comedian Bill Cosby, who attends the Penn Relays every year. Acting every bit the king of the carnival, Cosby held court with athletes and fans alike.
"I know they're young," Gatlin said of his former teammates. "But they will do very well. They have a lot of heart. For them to carry on the tradition of wearing the orange like I have and many of the great ones have is important."
Unfortunately, another piece of Vol history fell Friday at the Penn Relays in the shuttle hurdle relay. South Carolina broke Tennessee's 22-year-old world record in the event with a 53.94 winner. Tennessee's 1981 world record time of 54.40 came courtesy of Jerome Wilson, Anthony Hancock, Reggie Towns and Willie Gault. The Gamecocks also broke Tennessee's meet record from 2001, a foursome Gatlin led off as a true freshman. On Friday, Tennessee took third in the race with a 55.20 time by Karl Jennings, Stephen Harris, Robert Boulware and Jabari Greer. The 55.20 time stands just .03 of a second off the Vols' season best.
In the 100m dash, Wade and Lambert qualified for Saturday's finals with the third and fifth-fastest times, respectively. Wade's 10.46 won the second heat. Lambert's 10.48 took runner-up in the third heat. Both times were not season bests but did meet the regional-qualifying standard.
Tennessee's distance medley relay team took ninth on legs by Joakim Daun, Harris, Frank Francois and Rob Cloutier. The Vols posted a 9:58.24 time. Francois owned what was probably the best leg as he passed three runners on his final 300 meters. Three 110m hurdlers (Greer 12th, Jennings 15th and Boulware 18th) each met the regional qualifying standard without qualifying for the finals. Decathlete Harris opened the morning's competition with a 10th-place, 6-8.25 clearance in the high jump to complete his first of three events on the day.
While the rain just threatened in Philadelphia, storms caused the cancellation of the Cardinal Open after just 11 events in Louisville, Ky. However, head coach Bill Webb and a handful of Vols got in a little competition. Hammer throwers Josh Whisman and Jim Sexton led the way with a 1-2 finish. Whisman's 184-2 took the title and stands as a regional qualifier, though not a season best. Knoxville Central product Sexton posted yet another lifetime best with his runner-up 175-6 mark as he inches closer to the regional standard of 179-0.
Meanwhile on the track, Cordis Stanfield placed eighth in the 1,500m run with a 4:04.09 time. Tennessee's decathletes also got in some improvements in the shot put. Blake Sabo, 14th, registered a 13-inch lifetime-best improvement with his 45-5 measurement. Kevin Thompson, 16th, improved his season-best mark six inches with a 45-0.5 effort. Likewise, Alex Hritcu's 21st-place, 41-6 effort stands as a six-inch season best.
The Penn Relays close Saturday. Tennessee returns to campus Sunday to host the Knoxville Invitational.