Gophers perfect art of choosing their relay teams

Grant Donald

As the Gophers prepare to begin the bulk of their outdoor season, both the men and women’s teams will look to their relay teams for consistent point-scoring performances, much like they did last season.
But while just selecting the four fastest runners in that particular event may seem like all women’s coach Matt Bingle and men’s coach Steve Plasencia need to consider, in reality, it isn’t that simple.
Speed is still the major determining factor, but both coaches also consider different intangibles such as running style, chemistry with other relay members and even how many other events an athlete is competing in.
“A lot of girls come in having relay experience from high school, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate success in college,” Bingle said. “Most of them ran as anchors because they were the fastest in high school. Not everyone can be an anchor.”
Bingle said the two women who currently anchor his relays — redshirt sophomore Erin Hawkins for the 4×100 relay and fellow redshirt sophomore Titania Markland for the 4×400 relay — are exactly what anchors should look like. 
It’s evident that both have the required speed to anchor their relay, but they also have a mindset that sets them apart from the other possible candidates.
“Erin, in particular, is just so ultra-competitive when she runs,” Bingle said. “I know that if the other three can set up our anchors well for the final leg, I have confidence that [Hawkins and Markland] will give it their all just because they hate losing. You can’t teach that kind of stuff.”
While Bingle puts a lot of his trust in his anchor, Plasencia said that his lead-off runner has to be the most trusted member of the relay team.
“That first runner, he needs to be your most consistent runner no matter what day it is,” Plasencia said. “You can’t necessarily win the race in that first leg, but you sure can lose it, so that makes it a very critical leg.”
Both coaches added that the second and third leg runners are the most interchangeable athletes, most of the time due to either coach wanting to try out a combination of athletes that hasn’t been done before.
At last week’s Baldy Castillo Invitational, Plasencia slotted redshirt freshman Brad Neumann into the second leg of the 4×100 relay. Minnesota finished fourth in the competitive field, but more importantly, Plasencia was pleased to see Neumann not back down from the big stage.
“You hope that those younger guys are just able to run, but you would be surprised how many are unable to have success in relays,” Plasencia said. “You have to get your footwork down while still flying at top speed. … It’s not as easy as it looks.”
But in the end, all the logistics and combinations can be thrown out the window, and it really all comes down to speed.
“Winning a relay feels so much better than any individual title,” Hawkins said. “My teammates put a lot of responsibility on me because I’m the anchor, but with all that pressure, it only makes winning that much better.”