JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- Missing three of their top athletes for the season, the Cavalier men were far from the favorites to win the AAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships on Thursday…just don't tell that to the captains. The Cavaliers rode the performances of Senior Captains Billy Parker and Noah Hall, and got a little help from their freshmen, to win the conference championship by a mere 4 points, the first AAC Outdoor Track and Field Championship victory in Montreat history.
Parker started the Cavaliers off in the first event of the day with a victory in the 110-meter hurdles, and then teamed with Cedric Cash, Ayobami Oyemade, and Ben Lloyd in the 4x100 meter relay minutes later. Parker ran an excellent first leg, despite battling a calf cramp, and the Cavaliers looked as though they would win the second event of the day as well, before a rough exchange cost them lead and they wound up finishing second place. "Billy started us off on the right foot today," said Coach Herbert. "Last year, things didn't go so smooth at the beginning of the meet and it cost us, so Billy made sure that history wouldn't repeat itself."
Oyemade and Lloyd doubled back in the 100-meter dash, joining teammates Pablo Erwin and Eric Woodbury in the event. The Cavaliers picked up some more points when Oyemade finished 2nd overall in the 100-meter dash, running a season best 11.66 seconds into a strong headwind. Erwin, Lloyd, and Woodbury finished sixth, eighth, and tenth respectively. "Ayo's performance was huge in the 100, and he really ran well all day, but for him to sneak into 2nd was big because he wasn't seeded anywhere near that high," said Coach Herbert.
Oyemade didn't have long to wait before his next run as he joined teammate Cody LaBelle in the open 400-meter dash in the next event for the Cavalier. Ayo (52.50) and Cody (53.20) finished 5th and 7th respectively. "Tough races for both guys in the 400, and they were both really bummed. They knew we missed an opportunity there to score points and both of them could've run better. I told them to have a short memory and to make up for it in the 4x400 later in the day," said Coach Herbert.
In the 1500, freshmen Michael Hering and Akira Shavers finished 7th (4:15) and 9th (4:19) respectively, and Coach Herbert was pleased with both performances. "This is probably the most stacked event in the conference and we knew it would be a tough race. These guys ran well. Michael's been real sick all week, so I just wanted to see a good race out of him, and he toughed it out."
Erik Rodriguez, the third of the freshman trio, competed in the open 800 meters shortly after and had one of the best and most surprising performances for the Cavaliers all day. With an aggressive and tactically sound race strategy, Rodriguez was able to edge out the victory and become the first freshman to win an individual conference championship in Coach Herbert's time at Montreat. "Erik was flying under the radar coming into this race, but I really thought he had a chance to steal this win. I knew it would take his best race, and he really stepped up. The thing I kept telling him was to be the best over the last 100 meters. I knew if he could run the best final 100 meters, he'd be tough to beat, and he went out and got it done," said Coach Herbert. Shavers also doubled back in the 800, finishing 7th in a time of 2:09.05.
Senior Captain Noah Hall stepped up in his 400-meter hurdle race, winning his second conference championship in the event in three years. Hall, who ran a full second faster than he had all year to hold off a hard charging competitor from Tennessee Wesleyan, ended up with a personal best time of 58.37 seconds. "Noah won this race two years ago, but got crushed last year. I know that stung a little and I know he wanted to end his career with this championship. He put together easily his best race of the year and outpaced the field for the win. As a coach, you have to trust your seniors to get the job done, and today, Noah got the job done," said Coach Herbert.
Cedric Cash jumped a season best 6.06 in the long jump, good enough for 3rd place overall and 2 points for the team. "Cedric was the top seed coming in, and we thought he had won it on his last jump, but he scratched by just a little bit. I know he's disappointed, but his performances today were huge for the team and we wouldn't have won without him," said Coach Herbert. In the discus, Andre Archie and Nic Gerstung finished 5th and 8th respectively with throws of 31.74 meters and 30.05 meters, and Archie doubled back in the shot put with a season best mark of 11.52 meters, good enough for 6th overall. "Great effort by both of these guys, and Andre had season bests in both events today," explained Coach Herbert.
In the 5000 meters, freshman Michael Hering doubled back, despite almost collapsing after the 1500 due to illness. Nonetheless, Hering was not to be denied, stepping up big for the Cavaliers and finishing 2nd overall in the 5K, tying his season best time of 16:30. "Michael didn't want to run this event, but I wouldn't let him scratch. The team race was too close and I told him that we needed him to try to scratch out a point or two. He didn't want to do it, and he probably wasn't real happy that I made him do it, but he ran a tough race and ended up taking 2nd overall. Respect is earned, and Michael earned his today, for sure," explains Coach Herbert.
With just two events left and the team scores only a few points apart, the Cavaliers knew they would need to close hard. "I told the guys that we had to beat Tennessee Wesleyan in the 4x400, and they ran their guts out. We ended up second and TWU took the race, but Ayo and Cody ran excellent legs, and Erik came up just a little short at the end. Still, we ran a season best time by 4 seconds, and we did that without Michael, so they did their job," said Coach Herbert. Nonetheless, the defeat in the relay put the pressure on the last competitors for the Cavaliers, Parker and Cash competing in the High Jump.
Cash, competing in the high jump for the first time this season, cleared the bar at 1.73 meters and finished fourth place overall, leaving the rest up to Parker. With the height moving up, Parker and Milligan's Torian Sitton had a dog-fight on their hands. Parker had the advantage on jumps, but Sitton was relentless, clearing bar after bar to keep the pressure on Parker. Parker, a two-time defending champion in the event, was undeterred however, clearing the bar on his first attempt at 1.83 meters, and then again at 1.88 meters, tying the championship meet record and sealing his third consecutive High Jump conference championship.
"Billy Parker is our athlete of the meet, athlete of the year, and he's maybe the most clutch athlete I've ever coached. He's not the best athlete I've coached, not the fastest, not the most athletic, but he's got ice in his veins and he steps up when the pressure is on. We needed him today, we leaned on him today, he carried us. He accounted for 13 of our teams 37 points, and won two individual championships. What more can you ask of a guy? This is an emotional moment for me because Billy has battled through injuries all year, so for things to come together at the right time and for him to put on a performance like this…it's just awesome," said Coach Herbert. "Honestly, I thought he should have won the athlete of the meet. No disrespect to Shaka who won both the Shot Put and Discus events and set a meet record, because he had some excellent performances as well, but Billy scored the most points of any athlete in the meet, won two individual titles, and matched the conference record in the High Jump. I was disappointed that he didn't win that award, and I know he was a little disappointed too, but in my mind, there's no doubt that Billy Parker performed better than any other athlete at the meet this year."
The team scores were too close to call, providing a few moments of suspense, but when the final scores were tallied, the Cavaliers outpaced Tennessee Wesleyan 37-33 for the victory and brought home their first conference championship. Coach Herbert was selected as the AAC Men's Coach of the Year, and the men brought home the AAC Champions of Character Award as well.
"Don't think we take the Champions of Character award lightly," said Coach Herbert. "We work hard for this program every year, and while we certainly don't serve to gain earthly possessions, we take great pride in our service and it is nice that the other coaches in the conference recognize the work that we're doing." And with respect to the AAC Men's Coach of the Year award, Herbert said: "I'm very honored to win the Men's Coach of the Year award, although there are some great and deserving coaches in our conference as well. I'd also be remiss if I didn't credit Coach Caleb Snyder and Coach Jose Larios who really set the foundation for this program. We just try to get a little better every year, and my guys really deserve the recognition. This award really belongs to my Men's team as well, because their accomplishments as a team made this possible."