After a 2012 season in which the men’s 4x400-meter relay team shattered school records, hopes were high for the largely intact unit heading into 2013.
However, one problem continually afflicted the squad and prevented it from reaching its potential: dropping the baton.
“It’s just one of the hardest things to deal with in track, I think,” senior Emunael Mpanduki said.
Mpanduki’s opinion on the issue is derived from experience, as he recalled dropping the baton in the 4x100 at last year’s Big Ten Indoor Championships and how it affected he and his teammates.
“For the most part it’s an individual sport, so whatever you do affects you,” Mpanduki said. “But the relay affects everyone else. So the one time when you actually have to be a team and someone screws it up, it can be really maddening sometimes.”
At the conclusion of the indoor season, relay runners had dropped the baton four times, all in the 4x400-meter relay.
First-year assistant coach Randy Bungard, who ran relay events in high school, said that number was too high. Bungard also said his high school coaches would’ve “killed him” had he ever dropped the baton. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, the Virginia Tech graduate uses decidedly less severe measures in trying to limit mistakes among his athletes.
“The first time we dropped it there was kind of people getting upset with each other and I brought them together and said, ‘Listen, you guys are a team whether you drop the baton or make it all the way around. Nobody does it on purpose. So you’ve just got to figure out the cause of it and fix it,’ ” Bungard said.
As it pertains to what causes an athlete to drop the baton, Bungard said it varies based on the event. For example, in the 4x100, the baton is often bobbled on the hand-off as the outgoing runner is looking to get a leg up on his opponents. This differs from the 4x400-meter relay in which batons are often knocked out of runners’ hands due to the congestion on the track.
In spite of how important execution is in an event like the 4x400-meter relay, both Mpanduki and Bungard spoke to how important it is to have the quartet competing in the event working together as a team. The emphasis on chemistry seems to be a theme among both coaches and athletes as head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan also thinks unity is vital to the success of the team.
“It’s really a chemistry among the athletes that are in the relays to work together and get a feel going, a mojo going,” Alford-Sullivan said. “And when they’re in the zone together they tend to have less problems then when they’re a little disjointed and off-kilter with each other.”
Though the team didn’t replicate 2012’s record-breaking pace through the indoor portion of the season, it still heads into the outdoor season boasting a number of returning record-breakers who could help to make this year’s outdoor season as successful as last year’s.
Provided they hold on to the baton.