Boys 4x800 relay sizzles at nationals

Hinsdale Central's team defends title, stamps its place in high school track history

Last year, Hinsdale Central's 4x800-meter relay team set the Hayward Field record at the Nike Outdoor Nationals high school track meet on the campus of the University of Oregon.

Their blistering time of 7:32.15 would be tough to match at this year's event June 15-19. But with returning champions Aden Bandukwala, Michael Skora and Daniel Watcke, along with newcomer but recent state titlist Grant Miller, the group felt they could kick into an even higher gear.

"State was a huge confidence booster going into nationals," Watcke said of the triumphant performance at Eastern Illinois University in May. "We ran really fast at the state meet and Aden wasn't even on (that) 4x8, so we knew we could really run fast (at nationals)."

Miller said the group stuck to the same training regimen they had throughout the season.

"I think that the key really was not changing anything and sticking to the same schedule that we had been on," he said.

The all-time high school record of 7:28.75 was set by Long Beach Poly (Calif.) in 2011. And while that was in the back of their minds, victory was job No. 1.

"Coach (Noah Lawrence) was telling us, 'Keep that national record out of your mind, because if you think about it, that's all you'll focus on and another team could come up and bite you,' " Bandukwala said.

Skora agreed, saying first place was first priority.

"The main goal was just to win," he said. "Time was not really a factor at all."

Miller noted Central was considered the underdog to Alabama's Vestavia Hills.

"If you added up the numbers of our team and their team, they had a couple seconds on us," he said. "We just tried to stay under the radar."

They flew out with family members and coaches, did well in preliminary heats and tried to promote a positive mindset by getting ample rest and keeping one another loose. Singing together was a go-to de-stressor, Bandukwala revealed, with the classic "Shout" by the Isley Brothers among their favorites.

"We change the lyrics of every song, so like, 'Grant Miller's going make me shout!' " Bandukwala explained.

Miller admitted he battled nerves up until the team made their track entrance for the final and saw Coach Lawrence watching with his family in the front row.

"We knew it was game time. Walking into that stadium, it's like walking into Wrigley Field," Miller said.

"It's electric no matter how many people are in the stands. That atmosphere is crazy," Watcke remarked.

Bandukwala led off, well aware of his counterparts' ability.

"I knew who was in the race, who wasn't, from the start and tried to get as big of a lead on them as a I can," he said.

He handed he baton off to Skora in first place position. A Vestavia competitor went hard to catch Skora, who figured the runner would fade toward the latter stages.

"I kind of just slowed things down and let him pass me, and with 200 (meters) to go tried to get it back," he recounted. "It wasn't normally the way I run, but it worked out."

Miller was the third leg, and he readied to battle Vestavia's second-fastest member.

"Michael got me into a nice lead, but I knew I was going to have to fight to keep my position," Miller said.

Anchoring for Central was Watcke, the second-ranked 800-meter runner in the country. He watched the race unfold, every possible scenario going through his head. Miller set up him perfectly, half a second behind Vestavia.

"It's better to be the hunter than the hunted," Watcke said, who saw 7:16 on the clock with about 110 meters left. "I knew I was going to be really close (to the record)."

He ran a 1:48 leg and crossed the finish in 7:29.2, just missing the record for the No. 2 two spot all-time - and the best in Illinois history. Vestavia was runner-up with 7:30.68, good for fifth fastest ever.

"You couldn't really plan that race out any better than it went," Watcke said. "To think the four of us are the second fastest 4x8 ever in the United States is just crazy."

Bandukwala said the four came together to celebrate the fruit of their hard work and a second straight national title.

"That was a great feeling," he said.

There was quite a celebration back home, too, from those viewing the livestream, according to Miller.

"I think the crowd was loudest at (Central teammate Kyle) Doorhy's graduation party. There's videos of people going nuts watching us," he said.

A historic final race for this special group, three of now head to their respective college campuses. (Bandukwala returns for his senior year.)

But their bond is certain to last well beyond their Red Devil days.

"We're all friends outside of running," Watcke said. "You can't coach that love for each other that we have, and I think that really helps our team thrive in those meets. We're doing it for each other. We're not doing it for anybody else."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean