Putting a track and field relay team is sometimes like finishing the perfect 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle or creating a prize sculpture from a block of clay.
You need a little bit of luck, a lot of strategy and the textbook amount of chemistry and camaraderie.
St. Peter’s Prep head track and field coach Chris Caulfield knows all about constructing a fine relay team, in his case, the 4×200-meter relay team that recent had an indoor track season for the ages.
Before the indoor track season began, Caulfield wondered about how he was going to create a 4×200-meter relay team for the Marauders.
“We had two guys returning from last year’s relay,” Caulfield said. “We had a lot of guys on paper that I thought could possibly be on the relay.”
So there were the mainstays on the relay, guys like senior Richie Luzzi-Liggins, who had already established himself as one of the top sprinters in New Jersey on the heels of finishing fifth in the 100-meter dash last spring at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, and senior Gus Nations IV, who was on the relay team last year and had been a four-year staple of the Marauder track squad.
But the other two spots were totally wide open.
One thing was for sure. Junior Joey Morrone wanted one of those spots.
“It was actually my biggest goal,” Morrone said. “I wanted to be a part of the relay. I worked hard to be a part of the relay. I knew that they already had some background and some chemistry.”
Morrone, a football player like Luzzi-Liggins, eventually worked his way onto the top relay squad.
The last piece of the puzzle was yet another grid star.
Ayir Asante, a two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area wide receiver for the Marauders and a former Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week, never competed in track and field before. Asante, already committed to play football at Holy Cross this fall, pondered the idea of finally running track.
“I always questioned whether I could run track,” Asante said. “I never really had the time to do it. I was always weight lifting and getting ready for football. Since I wasn’t lifting this season, I thought I could give it a try. There was a spot on the relay team, so I said, ‘Why not?’”
There was never a question of Asante’s speed. Anyone who has seen Asante catch a pass and go, it’s like he was propelled out of a cannon. He’s clearly the fastest player to ever wear pads on the gridiron for the Marauders – and that alone says a lot, because the team has had its share of speed burners. But Asante had no peers. He took a screen pass in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 state playoffs against St. Joseph’s of Metuchen last fall and was simply gone – and everyone stopped and watched in utter amazement.
So there you had it, the making of a perfect relay team. Now all it needed was practice. And more practice. A relay team is simply not running fast. There’s the passing of the baton from one to the next, which needs utter precision.
“We worked tirelessly together,” Asante said. “We worked on passing the baton, because a slight misstep could make or break the entire relay. We had to make it cleaner and crisper each time we handed the baton off. We worked three days a week just on hand-offs.”
But the remainder of the team knew Asante was the key ingredient.
“We all knew that Ayir was fast,” said Luzzi-Liggins, who continued his track brilliance with a second place finish overall in the recent NJSIAA Meet of Champions in the 55-meter dash. “He just worked for us. When we added Joey, we ran even faster. We all knew that it was a pretty big honor to be on the relay. We’re all great friends together and we have great chemistry. We are always together. We’re always joking and laughing. I think that helps. But we practice passing the sticks like no one else.”
Nations IV, the other mainstay, has always received jokes about his name. Some even thought he could collect the nickname of United, as in United Nations.
“I thought I could change my name legally,” Nations said. “I felt it was my role to get this relay team together, helping with techniques and clicking off time. I felt like I could be the ambassador.”
Ah, get it, he could have been the Ambassador of United Nations.
“I like that,” Nations said. “We’ll use that. But in the beginning of the season, I had my eye on getting the relay team that could become All-American. That was the goal. We all worked toward it. I think 99 percent of a relay team is mental. The X-factor is spending time together and getting through the struggles.”
Nations was coming off a complex injury to his hip that required him to miss all of last season. So that was another obstacle.
But after it was constructed, the Marauder relay team took to the track with a vengeance. They didn’t have a lot of chances to compete together in meets, but they were poised to make noise at the New Balance United States Nationals at the 168th Street Armory in New York.
“It was like the perfect storm,” Caulfield said. “They were all on the same page together. I didn’t have to spend a moment to get them all together, ready to work every single day. They were super dedicated throughout. I was confident we could make it.”
The Marauders qualified for the nationals and eventually placed sixth overall, making them All-Americans. “United” Nations had his goal. For Luzzi-Liggins, it was the second time he was on an All-American relay, as he was part of the relay team in the outdoor track season two years ago that earned the distinction.
“It was great to see how excited they were,” Caulfield said. “It was a surreal moment. I was thankful to be a part of it.”
“No words could describe it,” Nations said. “When we made it to the finals, I even cried a little. I could finally say I was an All-American.”
Luzzi-Liggins was beyond shocked.
“Never in a million years did I think this could happen,” Luzzi-Liggins said. “I was just going to school to play football and baseball. Running track? I knew I was fast, so I gave it a try. To be an All-American? It doesn’t feel real.”
“When it became real, it was pretty unreal for me,” Asante said.
“It’s awesome,” Morrone said. “To be one of the best relay teams in the country, well, it’s awesome.”