Hands have officially replaced the eyes.
The Michigan women's 4x1,500-meter relay quartet scorched the dry Franklin Field track at the Penn Relays yesterday, breaking the 17-year-old record they set their gaze upon prerace, preseason and pre-Anna Willard.
Willard is the Wolverines graduate student who ran a blistering third-leg split of 4 minutes, 13.9 seconds, setting up anchor Nicole Edwards' triumphant run to a 17:15.62 collegiate mark. Michigan's dominating performance eclipsed Villanova's 1990 milestone of 17:18.10, set also at Penn.
"This is something that we've been looking forward to for years," said Katie Erdman, who ran a 4:22 opening leg. "All season it's been sort of an inside joke: 'Eyes on the prize.' "
The Wolverines not only got to finally see their reward - a Championship of America plaque - the young women grasped it and raised it on the stadium infield as tradition calls.
The title was only Michigan's second in the women's relay events at Penn and its first since 1985, when the Wolverines claimed the distance medley. Except for Willard, who ran as an undergraduate at Brown, the three other runners - Erdman, a fifth-year senior, Edwards, a junior, and Geena Gall, a sophomore and yesterday's second leg - never competed at Penn.
In fact, the foursome had never participated in a formal 4x1,500, a rarely-run event. Willard said she hasn't completed an official 1,500 since July.
It didn't show, as Willard, whose split was the sixth fastest in relays history, took a one-stride lead and expanded it tenfold. As she opened up, it was apparent Michigan was no longer racing against its current competition but one of Villanova's hallowed marks.
"I remember coming freshman year and looking at the records and looking at their splits and thinking they were completely untouchable," Willard said. "They're just a legacy in track, not to mention at the Penn Relays."
When Edwards received the final baton, she knew she needed better than a 4:20 - thanks to Willard and coach Mike McGuire's prodding - to top the record. Of course, announcer Bob Hirsh's play-by-play made Edwards well aware of her standing - or running.
"I know that even on a bad day I should be able to run faster than that," Edwards said. "I knew we were going to break the record. I heard the announcer say, 'The question is, by how much?' "
The answer was, by 2.48 seconds as Edwards ran a 4:18.3 split. The other question was, by how much would they win? The answer: More than 25 seconds over second-place Brigham Young. The scarier question was, how would the Wolverines have fared had they been pushed by, say, a Stanford, winners of the three previous 4x1,500s?
Stanford was conspicuously absent, but Michigan would have welcomed the challenge.
"More competition means faster times," quipped Erdman.
Willard had the same explanation for her career-best 1,500. At Brown, where she holds 10 school records, she guided the Bears to a third-place finish in last year's DMR.
But Michigan's top-tier talent pushed the Greenwood, Maine, native to faster and farther distances. She did have another explanation, though.
"Eyes on the prize," she said.
In other college women's relay championships, LSU held off South Carolina to claim its 11th crown in the 4x100. The Tigers covered the loop in 43.66 seconds - .14 ahead of the Gamecocks - for their first win since 2004.
South Carolina, though, returned the favor by clipping LSU in the shuttle-hurdles championship, 53.54 to 53.73 seconds.
LSU's blazing 4x100 was brought home by anchor Kelly Ann Baptiste, who also qualified for today's 100-meter championship with a ho-hum 11.55. Baptiste tied a meet record (Lauryn Williams, Miami, 2004) in winning the 100 last April in 11.10 seconds.