COVID-19: Track Coaches, Athletes Reflect on Lost Spring Season

(Courtesy Dwayne Cox)

Malachi Little still remembers the chills and rush of adrenaline that he would get when he was a high schooler arriving at Franklin Field for the Penn Relays

“It’s just one of those places,” Little said. “You feel a different way. It’s not just a track meet. It’s a different atmosphere.” 

Little was a senior and captain of the track team at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey during the 2019-20 school year, and is currently a freshman at Delaware State University, competing on the track and field team. The Penn Relays were the pinnacle of his high school seasons when he knew he had to run his best because of the small army of college recruiters in attendance.  

“It’s like war in a way because you know that you gotta do what you gotta do,” he said. “It’s something that always stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s just a different feeling.”

Every year for the past 125 years, on the last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in April, Franklin Field would become the center of Philadelphia athletics as thousands of athletes, parents, coaches, fans, and media would gather to watch some of the highest ranked college track and field athletes compete, along with promising high school teams and some of the best professionals the sport has to offer. That is until 2020, in what was supposed to be the 126th running of the Penn Relays, when the novel coronavirus forced organizers to cancel the event

The announcement was devastating for the team and staff at St. Benedict’s. 

“It was a real let down, even though we knew it was coming,” Dwayne Cox, the head track and field coach at St. Benedict’s, said. “Think of it as you’re on the highway and you see 20 cars in a crash ahead of you, and you’re watching it as car after car gets caught up in it and you can’t get out the way. And you’re like, ‘Aw, damn. Please let this stop before it gets to my car.’ But you just keep watching until it does.” 

Cox and his team kept holding out hope and preparing for the Penn Relays to go on as scheduled, but they knew the chances of it happening were low. The cancellation of the Penn Relays meant fewer recruiting opportunities for many of Cox’s athletes. 

“It’s a showcase event for people to show off, really,” Cox said. “Because the colleges at the Penn Relays study those time splits religiously during that weekend. They want to know who’s running what time, who’s competing in what event and who’s going where. I’ve had many coaches as I’m walking past them pull me over to talk about some of my kids. That’s one of the highlights.”

Students also use the relays as an opportunity to pitch themselves to colleges they might be interested in.

In the spring, Little was up for a scholarship from the University of Memphis and needed to take a second off of his time in the 400-meter to clench it. The cancellation of the Penn Relays, and later the entire outdoor spring track and field season, meant he never got the chance to show the staff at Memphis he improved his time. 

“A lot of us were closing out on offers,” Little said. “I even had an offer from Memphis, and the coach told me I needed to run a 48 [seconds] instead of a 49 to go there. I probably would’ve ran a 48 or even a 47 and closed out that offer. The outdoor season is where you get to make your final statement and put it all together and makes a school decide if they really want you.” 

Though Little lost out on the Memphis scholarship, he did receive some scholarship money from Delaware State. COVID-19-related policy changes at college athletic programs made getting a scholarship even more difficult for the class of 2020.

On March 30, the NCAA announced it is giving an extra year of eligibility to spring-sport athletes who’s seasons were cut short by the pandemic. The decision allowed college seniors who were initially going to graduate to pursue a fifth year of school and compete on their respective teams. 

St. Benedict’s sprint coach Hassan Wilson said the NCAA’s decision affected high school seniors by impacting the number of scholarship-eligible roster spots high school athletes could compete for.

At the end of each season, college coaches will usually know how many scholarships they have available to offer high school seniors due to graduating college seniors. With seniors who were expected to graduate now staying for fifth years to compete, coaches now need to decide whether they’ll honor the scholarships they offered to those high school seniors, or keep their fifth year seniors on scholarship for an unexpected extra year.

“COVID made recruiting very challenging for all parties involved,” Wilson said. “Think about the trickle down effect of the NCAA’s decision to give seniors another year of eligibility. For the most part, our seniors weren’t able to meet the marks to sway certain college coaches.” 

Still, the seniors of the St. Benedict’s track team were all able to go to college with at least some scholarship money.

”We were fortunate to graduate 100% of our seniors, who all went to college on some form of athletic aid,” Wilson said. ”The level of recruitment would have been more fruitful with an outdoor season, and guys would have been better rewarded for their faster marks.”

The Penn Relays, canceled on March 16, weren’t the only high profile meet Little and his teammates lost out on. The New Balance Indoor Nationals meet was canceled on March 12, and the New Balance Outdoor Nationals were canceled on June 16. 

“Penn means as much and is just as important as nationals.” Little said. “I didn’t want to break that to the team, but some things you have to deal with upfront.”

From left to right: Jackson Burnett, Lewis Nwgenya, Alfred Chawonza and Ronald Kigen stand outside of Franklin Field after winning the 4×800 Relay at the 2019 Penn Relays. (Courtesy Dwayne Cox)

Depending on where outdoor nationals are hosted any given year, sometimes St. Benedict’s can’t afford to send the team, so the Penn Relays is the signature event the team looks forward to each season. Losing the Penn Relays was a big deal to Little, but losing the entire spring season and a chance at national competitions made the entire team lose motivation.

“It’s not something we wanted to happen, but it was something that we had to deal with as a whole team,” Little said. “I remember as soon indoor nationals got canceled, we were all thinking, can we at least get Penn Relays?’ Once it got canceled we pretty much just knew it was all done.” 

Despite the canceled season, Cox remains most proud of St. Benedict’s near 100% graduation rate each year, especially when he is able to get kids to college on athletic aid or scholarship.

“We’re a preparatory school that’s in the middle of the hood,” Cox said. “For a lot of parents, that’s a very shiny object to reach for ‘cause they look around at all the public schools in the Newark area and realize that Benedict’s is the best option.” 

With college programs feeling a financial crunch and limiting opportunities for rising freshmen, Cox is concerned about diminished opportunities for his team.

“We’re not worried about the top of the line, top tier athletes, because they’re going to get in somewhere,” he said. ”It’s those middle of the road athletes who need to show themselves. Everybody worries, especially in the inner city. Because if colleges won’t take them, who will?” 

Events like the Penn Relays offer the athletes at St. Benedicts a goal to spend an entire season striving for, Cox said. A strong showing at the Penn Relays could mean a chance at more success, and that is what Cox wants his students to realize. 

“This might be what’s keeping a student on the straight and narrow path,” he said. “And if they lose that motivation, do they have enough strength to continue on the path that they’ve set for themself until they’re strong enough to stand on their own?”

There have been no updates on whether the 126th Penn Relays will be held in 2021, and information likely won’t come for the next couple of months. As he waits, Cox hopes he can see his team compete again. 

“I am hopeful, but it’s kinda hard to be optimistic at the moment,” Cox said. “I think the Penn Relays will run, but I’m not sure in what capacity. I’m not sure that we’ll have that beautiful Saturday with 52,000 of our closest friends together.”

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