PHILADELPHIA >> The rookie was ready, and the North Penn girls 4×800-meter relay team once again pushed its way through a stacked deck to advance to Friday’s Championship of America.
“I had never run at the Penn Relays,” sophomore Jenna Webb said, “so I was really nervous to be the first leg.
“At practice (Wednesday), all of my teammates would go around me so I could practice getting out,” she said with a smile. “It’s really exciting here because you see everybody go so fast but I was really nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. I feel like I did pretty good for my first time ever.”
Webb got the Knights the start they needed, and NP raced away to a qualifying-time of 9 minutes, 11.65 seconds at sunny Franklin Field Thursday for the 123rd Running of the Penn Relays.
“I just wanted to make sure I handed off in an okay spot,” said Webb, whose leadoff helped the Knights advance to the COA for the third straight year. “It was so different than anything I did during the season. Any dual meet or invitational during the season, it’s never as crowded or as hectic as it is here. I wanted to be up towards the front but not the one that took the race out.”
On came Uche Nwogwugwu, who pushed the Knights from seventh to second.
“I always go out fast. The 400 is my race so when I do the 800 I go out fast and try to maintain as fast a pace as I can,” said Nwogwugwu, who cranked out the 14th-highest 800 split (2:14.47) out of nearly 300 runners.
Nwogwugwu, Ariana Gardizy and Mikaela Vlasic were all returning from last year’s 4×8 squad, which finished fourth in the COA.
“When we were on the bus (today), it was like ‘oh it’s just another meet, and I’m going here next year so it’s a home meet,” said Nwogwugwu, who takes her speed to Penn next season. “We were like, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’
“But once we got to the green carpet, I was really nervous,” she said smiling. “Every time we come, it’s the same feeling all over again.”
Experience overcame nerves.
“Just pretend like it’s any other race,” Nwogwugwu said. “Go out as hard as you can. Don’t run in the comfort zone. Push the pace the whole race.”
The Knights were second only to Edwin Allen of Jamaica (8:56.75) in their heat and ran the eighth fastest time overall.
“(Qualifying) means a lot because we got second at Nationals (indoors), two seconds off of first, and Ridge won and they’re here so it’s like a rematch,” Nwogwugwu said. “We wanna go out and do our best, against all of the other teams too because all of the Jamaicans are here so we wanna go out and compete.
“We’re not here for fun. We’re here to compete.”
Gardizy took that approach into the third leg of Thursday’s race, charging hard against the clock.
“My last 200, I would look at it and go,” she said.
The Knights have built quite a tradition in the 4×8 at Franklin Field, finishing eighth two years ago and surging to fourth in 2016.
“My sophomore year was the first year we made it and we weren’t really sure what it meant,” said Vlasic, who is bound for Pitt. “And then last year we got fourth. And it was like a really big deal.
“That was really cool for us. And then we’ve been doing these other big meets like Nationals and winning states in the 4×8 two years in a row, so we’re looking to do the best we can (Friday).”
Vlasic anchored the Knights home. North Penn had changed the order a bit for this one, going from Gardizy-Webb-Nwogwugwu-Vlasic to having Webb lead off, followed by Nwogwugwu, Gardizy and Vlasic.
“Jenna has never really started at something like this where it’s really aggressive and really fast,” Vlasic said. “But she did well for her first time. It was good, and Uche always does well, chasing and getting us to the front.
“And the third leg was good for Ariana. She usually starts but knowing somebody was behind her the entire time helped her out. So it worked.”
North Penn races into Friday’s final, set for 1:10 p.m. Also advancing out of Thursday’s races was Cheltenham’s 4×100 relay, which cranked out the second fastest time out of 237 competing schools.
“To begin with, the weather is beautiful,” said anchor Chanel Brissett, who will be racing under sunny skies next year at USC. “I really think that’s a really good high for me, at my last Penns. I’m just excited that we’re running fast, the weather’s good, and things are working in our favor.”
Bria Barnes led off for the Panthers, Ciana Fleming filled in for an injured Brielle Lewis, and then Alexis Crosby and Brissett ran third and fourth for Cheltenham, which is all set for Friday’s COA at 2:30.
“We’re really excited about it,” Brissett said. “This team is phenomenal. We had some changes to the relay but it’s working out. It’s all great.”
Earlier in the day, Upper Dublin’s Madison Langley-Walker finished ninth (1:01.98) in the 400 hurdles and another local standout, Taylor O’Brien of PW, crossed 15th (1:02.89).
The North Penn girls 4×1 qualified for Saturday’s Tri-State race (1:45 p.m.), going 48.30 on Thursday with a team of Jess Brenfleck, Kathleen Stevenson, Natalie Kwortnik and Sophia Broadhurst.
Top Photo: North Penn’s Mikaela Vlasic takes the baton from Ariana Gardizyin the 4×800 for large schools Thursday at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia on Thursday, April 27, 2017. North Penn finished second in a time of 9:11.65 Other legs were run by Jenna Webb and Uchechi Nwogwugwu. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)