They have started to call their school “800 High.”
They have a good reason.
It’s a tradition that dates back decades, and after tailing off for a period, State College has returned to showing its teeth at that distance.
Taking the state’s best time in the 4x800-meter relay into the PIAA Track and Field Championships, and qualifying three runners for the individual 800-meter race, is a pretty positive sign.
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“The training culture that we’ve built here, everybody around you running so fast for so long,” junior Owen Wing said. “We’ve figured out the workouts and just the structure of ‘800 High’ is built, you come in here and do what the people older than you are doing and the people faster than you are doing, and it will come along. You’ll get fast.”
You come in here and do what the people older than you are doing and the people faster than you are doing, and it will come along. You’ll get fast.
Fast they are.
The school record for the 3,200 relay had stood since 1969. It had been threatened several times in the past decade, but starting in 2012 the relay times had become consistently among the state’s best, with a medal each year since. The record finally tumbled in 2014 as the team grabbed the PIAA gold medal, then fell again last spring with a third-place finish.
“We’re starting to re-establish the tradition of State High being in the hunt for the 4x8 that existed years ago,” said head coach Steve Shisler, who is in his sixth year with the program and first as head coach. “(Longtime coach) Jackson Horner would have (4x800 relay teams) almost every year in the mix at the outdoor state meet. That was one of my objectives when I first started coaching.”
Shisler, who specializes in coaching the distance runners, puts a tremendous investment in training for the 800, feeling it translates both for those who run the 400 as well as those who go longer distances like the 1,600 and 3,200.
The foursome who broke the long-standing record in 2014 were all seniors and invested much of themselves to break the mark. It was a focus most of the season to get to that point on the season’s final day.
One year later, Alex Milligan, Nick Feffer, Anthony Degleris and Eric Heatwole surprised everyone, including themselves, by turning in a time of 7 minutes, 41.51 seconds, slicing 0.48 off the mark. Heatwole was the only senior, and they hadn’t been worrying about the record.
“It was pretty euphoric experience of all the races we’ve had,” Degleris said. “That was definitely the most exciting one. To see that time, that was definitely a surprise. We knew we were going to be in the race, but we didn’t think it would be like that.”
All but Heatwole are back, with Wing jumping into the picture, and they are again a medal favorite for this weekend.
“We’re definitely a lot better than we were last year,” Milligan said. “It’s (the record) not something we’re really worrying about. The main goal is to win states. We’re hoping it just happens along the way.”
The highlight of this spring was a victory in their first race at Penn Relays, then finishing fourth in the Championship of America 4x800 race. Two Jamaican teams, and one from North Carolina, finished ahead of the Little Lions’ time of 7:44.74, which ranks best among all Pennsylvania teams this spring. They just wish they had beaten that North Carolina team.
“We were a little upset to get second for the American teams,” Milligan said. “We wanted to win and get those watches. You can’t repeat that anywhere else, especially in high school. … It makes (the PIAA meet) a little less big and intimidating.”
This weekend, Degleris and Feffer will run in the open 800. Milligan also qualified but he dropped out to concentrate on the 1,600 and the relays. He’s also on the 1,600 relay teams, which is another strong medal contender — and State College looks to be contending for the team title, too.
Wing was the District 6 champ in the 3,200, but he, too, scratched from the PIAA race and only will run in the relay.
“The relay’s definitely more important to me and my team,” Wing said. “It was a pretty easy decision for me.”
Whether they break the record again is not a concern. If the pace at the start of the race is slow, it may be out of their control, especially with the weekend expected to be hot and humid. But it figures to be a definite possibility.
“When you compete hard and compete well, times eventually take care of themselves,” Shisler said.
The moniker “800 High” is a spinoff from what some runners like to refer to the Penn State team. With top national contenders like Robby Creese, Brannon Kidder, Casimir Loxsom and Ryan Foster just in the past few years, they call themselves “800 U.”
The Little Lions have re-established themselves among the state’s best, and now there is a standard to maintain.
“We’re kind of upholding this 800 title,” Feffer said. “That’s what we’re known for and what we do.”