Michael Kelly/Recorder staff
Members of the Amsterdam High School boys 4x400-meter relay team celebrate winning the federation state title at Saturday’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association Outdoor Track and Field State Championships in Cicero. The title was the first state championship for an AHS relay. Shown, from left, are: David Graveley, Julian Gallup, Izaiah Brown and Andrew Druziak.
Photo courtesy ny.milesplit.com
Amsterdam’s Izaiah Brown, second from left, navigates traffic at the start of the final lap of Saturday’s state championship 4x400-meter relay in Cicero.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff
Amsterdam’s Julian Gallup, right, receives a hug from coach Stu Palczak while head coach Kevin Wilary looks on after the Rams’ 4x400-meter relay team won the state championship at Saturday’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Cicero.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff
Amsterdam’s Andrew Druziak waits for a handoff during the 4x400-meter relay at Saturday’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association Outdoor Track and Field State Championships in Cicero.
By MICHAEL KELLY
CICERO -- When it mattered the most, the Amsterdam High School boys 4x400-meter relay team delivered the finest performance in school history.
Following a disappointing fourth-place effort Friday in the public school title race at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Outdoor Track and Field Championships, the Rams relay roared back Saturday with a school-record time of 3 minutes, 17.87 seconds to capture the overall state championship in the federation finals at Cicero-North Syracuse High School.
"We all wanted our redemption," junior Andrew Druziak said.
The Rams earned their school's first state title in a relay, with juniors Izaiah Brown, David Graveley and senior Julian Gallup joining Druziak. After a race Friday that featured poor handoffs and a time of 3 minutes, 20.25 seconds, the AHS four delivered the goods Saturday.
"They came back and ran a fantastic race," said AHS boys head coach Kevin Wilary. "They're resilient."
In a race that featured a loaded field and some crazy twists during the course of the 1,600 meters, the Rams' first three legs kept AHS within striking range for Brown, and the junior anchor -- who defended his state title earlier Saturday in the 400-meter dash -- did the rest. Trailing roughly 15 meters when he took the baton, Brown uncorked a jaw-dropping split of 46.08 seconds -- 2.68 seconds faster than the next-best leg from an anchor -- to take the title.
Brown had promised such an effort. Before the race, Wilary was giving his club a pep talk when Brown spoke up.
"Izaiah just said: 'Get it to me close, and I'm going to get them,'" Wilary said.
Brown kept his word about the race's finish, but there was much preamble.
First, AHS needed to refocus itself after a race Friday that the Rams runners desperately wanted to forget. When that race had ended, Gallup wore how the rest of his team was feeling on his shocked face.
In his senior year, Gallup had starred for the Rams on the track, football gridiron and baseball diamond -- but Friday's loss meant his high school career was winding down, and it appeared to be doing so without him claiming his top goal: a state title.
Gallup said that all he could think about Friday was the number of people who had helped him during his career at AHS.
"I felt like I owed it to them to bring home a state championship," he said. "I've always wanted to do that for Amsterdam."
Knowing Saturday was his final chance to deliver, Gallup tried to rally the Rams. The senior was originally not even supposed to run Saturday; the school's senior ball was that night, and the plan was for the Rams to win Friday's relay so Gallup could head home early from the state championships for the high school ritual. But the Rams lost, leaving Gallup to make the decision late Friday night that he'd show up late for his prom in order to stay with his teammates and take another shot at a state title.
So, there Gallup was before Saturday's race, trying to pump up his fellow Rams. If they ran their best race, Gallup said, the Rams could still win a state title, and the senior reminded his teammates -- all juniors -- that the federation title race was going to be his last "in the purple and gold."
On the track, Graveley started the Rams off with a ferocious lap. The way the race was staggered meant Graveley's lap was slightly shorter than 400 meters, but the junior landed AHS at the front of the pack after a turn of 48.27 seconds.
Next up was Gallup, whose lap included the meters missing from Graveley's turn. Running 400 meters and change, Gallup took 52.99 seconds before handing off to Druziak.
"That was the hardest I've ever ran in my life," Gallup said.
The handoff between Gallup and Druziak was where the Rams struggled Friday, but the pair pulled off the maneuver to perfection Saturday; Wilary credited assistant coach Mirlinda Gecaj with helping the Rams with their handoffs in between races.
Once the Rams made the switch from Gallup to Druziak, the senior said he knew Saturday was about to become a special day.
"As soon as I saw Drew get on someone's hip and go, I thought: 'This race is over,'" said Gallup. "Honestly, I swear, I knew (we were going to win) as soon as I saw the way Drew was running."
Friday, Druziak had not run from the blame for his poor exchange with Gallup. When he took the baton that day, he pivoted the wrong way, costing himself time right at the start and shaking his confidence for the rest of his lap. He owned the mistake and was determined to make sure Saturday's reception was smooth.
"I was more focused on that handoff than in any race I've ever been in," he said.
Once he started his turn without incident, Druziak was off to a gutsy run. His split of 50.53 seconds was not one of the race's best, but the junior is more of a battler than a speedster; Saturday, he worked his style to perfection, staying within range of the lead runners as he approached Brown.
With Druziak coming down the stretch, Gallup paced and Graveley ran through the infield until he was even with a waiting-to-run Brown on the track.
His eyes opening wide and his lips curling on his face, Graveley got his teammate's attention.
"Izaiah," Graveley yelled, jabbing his right index finger toward Brown, imploring the AHS star to work his magic.
Then, things got crazy.
Taking the baton in a congested area a few runners back of the lead, Brown faced three obstacles within the first 10 meters of his run. First, he had to avoid two runners from Half Hollow Hills West, who were stumbling after a failed baton exchange; then, Brown had to avoid the third runner from Warwick Valley -- Friday's champion -- who had stopped after his handoff right in front of the AHS junior; finally, while dodging Warwick Valley's Dan Kelly, Brown had to duck his head to avoid getting popped in the face with the baton of an oncoming runner from North Rockland.
"I saw that and I was worried," AHS girls head coach Stu Palczak said of the mess of runners.
But Brown swept around the Half Hollow Hills West runners, then contorted his body through the tight fit between Kelly and North Rockland's Derrick Brooks. His lap's early crisis averted, Brown straightened out his body as he moved into open territory.
From that vantage point, Brown could see all that was ahead of him was 15 meters of blank track before the race's three leading runners. While he saw that, he said he could hear his teammates screaming out to him to turn on the jets.
"And, I knew instantly that I could take it," Brown said.
So did his teammates and coaches.
Gallup said he had known Brown was not ending the race without a state title before the Rams had ever taken the track. Back when Gallup gave his speech about being in his last race for AHS, the senior had seen the look on Brown's face.
"I said to myself then: 'He's going to go get it for us,'" Gallup said.
Druziak said he knew the Rams were winning once he handed the baton to Brown. The first three AHS runners had kept the junior star close, and that has always been enough for Brown.
"I didn't even have to watch -- but I did," Druziak said.
Up in the stands, the AHS coaches were confident. When this same Rams relay team had run at this past winter's indoor state championships, Brown watched the final in tears from the sideline, his legs uncooperative on a day where his teammates needed him. That day, Brown had vowed for the spring season to end differently, and he spent the next few months working furiously to keep his promise.
While Brown worked to strengthen his body, Palczak said where the junior made the most improvement was in his head. The physical skills had always been there for Brown, Palczak said, but the way the winter ended changed something for the runner.
"His mental toughness improved," said Palczak. "Through that tough day at the indoor state meet, I think his mindset changed."
So, sure, as Brown started Saturday's final lap, he had already run 1,200 meters between three intense races during the past 24 hours.
And, yes, he could feel some pain creeping into an ankle that had been bothering him, an irritation he could handle better if his legs felt fresh and the day's blistering sun had not been beating down on him for hours.
But dealing with all of that could wait for another 400 meters -- and Wilary said the AHS coaches never doubted their superstar was about to turn the C-NS track into his own personal playground.
"He's Izaiah Brown," said Wilary. "And, Izaiah Brown doesn't disappoint."
Just 100 meters into his race, Brown had made substantial gains on the race's leaders; by the 150-meter mark, he was nearly there; and, at the 200-meter mark, he was even.
The next 100 meters saw the greatest sprinter in AHS history build himself a cushion, leaving Brown to turn for home with significant space between himself and the pack.
"From there, it was evident for those who know him that the race was over,' said Palczak. "The rest was a victory 100 for him."
Finishing in second place Saturday was Warwick Valley at 3 minutes, 19.06 seconds; the Rams had topped the field's next-best team by more than a full second.
On the infield, the Rams' celebration began before Brown even crossed the finish line. Druziak and Graveley smiled from ear to ear, while Gallup -- again -- wore a look of post-race shock, but this one came from a much different place.
The look's meaning was clear: Not even 24 hours after the biggest disappointment of the Rams' season, they were state champions.
Quickly after the race's finish, the AHS opening trio swarmed Brown. The fastest foursome in school history embraced; fittingly, the athletes managed to align the group hug in the same order they had just used on the track.
With the meet concluded, the infield soon turned into an AHS party. Sophomore alternates Gabe Fernandez and Edgar Maldonado rushed to the Rams runners, with coaches and family members not far behind.
In Saturday's run, the Rams posted the second-best time in Section II history, while the school record they broke of 3 minutes, 19.23 seconds belonged to last year's Rams that included Brown, plus 2013 seniors John Hardies, Brett Stanavich and Anthony Stewart.
That foursome had also made it to the state championships and finished in third place, helping to pave the way for this year's squad.
"That relay team last year was very special," said Wilary. "To be able to go out here and pretty much crush that mark from last year, it's amazing."
Not bad for a squad that -- including Saturday's race -- had only run together four times this spring and included two rookies to the sport in Druziak and Gallup.
"But we all put it together and it worked out amazing," said Graveley. "We all have a real connection. We care for each other and want to always see each other do better and better."
The Rams made fitting the pieces together look easy, but Saturday's team was a unique collection of talent. Brown has been the team's star for years; in the past few years, Graveley has slowly willed his way from being an afterthought to becoming the one Wilary often calls his team's captain; Gallup balanced playing baseball with track and field all spring; and, Druziak only took to the sport this winter when a broken bone in his right wrist rendered him unable to play basketball.
"They all came to us in different ways, but it has seemed seamless how they all work together," Palczak said.
The four AHS runners are planning to race again together this upcoming weekend at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor championships in North Carolina. The NBNO championships are not an official high school event, though, so Saturday's relay was the final 2014 race for the athletes in representing AHS.
While the 2014 season just ended, it did not take long for the Rams to begin hatching plans for 2015. Next year, the state championships are expected to be conducted at the University at Albany, and Graveley said the three returning Rams have designs on defending the title.
"We'll be right back," said Graveley. "We're going to come again and do the same thing."
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