Having coached cross-country and track and field at Scarsdale since the 1982-83 school year, Rich Clark doesn’t experience many firsts anymore. This winter, however, the 4x800-meter relay team provided him with a new one as Ward Bandsma, Eric Jacobson, D.J. Matusz and Nico Bernard became his first boys indoor relay team to qualify for the New York State championships.
Though rival Arlington was the favorite, the Scarsdale foursome won the Section 1 state qualifier, with each runner having a story to tell in helping the relay team get to such an elite level.
“I don’t think we were expecting to run that fast,” Jacobson said. “We just wanted to go out and compete for one of the top two spots and hit a certain time to guarantee. We all executed what we had to perfectly and everybody ran some really good legs.”
Junior Bandsma, who led off the relay in a split of 2:01.729, was injured from cross-county and into this season and had a choice of competing in the 1,600-meter and the relay at state qualifiers or just saving himself for the relay. Coach Clark was pleased to see him opt out of the 1,600.
“Arlington would have won and Pearl River was close, so had Ward opted to do the mile I think it would have taken 3 seconds out of him and he’d have been a 2:04 or 2:05 and then it would have been really close,” Clark said.
Bandsma’s split was his fastest 800 time “by far,” according to Clark. He was in third or fourth place handing off to Jacobson, but it was a tight pack.
Jacobson and Bernard, both seniors, had, about 45 minutes earlier, competed in the 600-meter. They came in with seed times of 1:22.27 and 1:21.38, respectively, and took first and second places to qualify for states with times of 1:23.08 and 1:23.65.
The duo’s strategy was to conserve energy for the relay, while also assuring they qualified for states in the 600.
“We felt it out during the race and near the end of the race we knew we had a good gap and felt comfortable, so we could go into cruise velocity to conserve energy,” Jacobson said.
They narrowly edged third-place finisher Cole Ginghina of Dobbs Ferry, who also made states in 1:23.66.
“It was Eric and Nico going back and forth and there was a tight race,” Clark said. “Eric pulled ahead and Nico was very close behind.”
Jacobson, despite being more spent than he’d have liked, wowed his coach with a 4x800 split of 1:58.911 and had Scarsdale close to the lead. “I was like, ‘Whoa,’” Clark said.
Then came Matusz, the newcomer of the group. As of the middle of the fall he was an ice hockey player who had picked up running in the spring and continued with cross-country. Matusz moved up from the 16th runner to fifth in the fall, and with hockey injuries taking their toll he made the switch officially this winter.
“The cross-country decision was a big one,” Clark said. “He told me at the end of spring that he was thinking about it. I kept contacting him all summer and met with him a couple of times trying to hang onto that hope against hope he was going to give up hockey.”
With Matusz committed to the track team, now he’s going to states after a 1:59.231 split.
“He took over the lead and was just pushing and pushing and pushing the pace, but it was tight,” Clark said.
Bernard, whom Clark said “can run fast even when he’s tired,” sealed the deal with a blazing fast anchor split of 1:56.550.
“After running the 1:23 in the 600 I don’t think Nico could have run any faster in the anchor leg,” Clark said.
Scarsdale’s seed time was an 8:13.09, while Arlington came in with a 7:53.66, Pearl River an 8:09.40, Rye an 8:06.76. Scarsdale won in 7:56.43, topping Arlington (7:57.70), Pearl River (8:00.73) and Rye (8:09.07) among the top contenders.
Based on Arlington’s previous time, the expectation was that everyone else was fighting for second place. That’s not how it played out and Clark later found out Scarsdale now has the seventh fastest time in Westchester County history.
“That was super,” Clark said. “They all ran superbly. They couldn’t have run better. It was almost like the 600 was a warmup to get the bugs out of their system for Eric and Nico. They were on target.”
Just like Clark has had close calls in winning the section and going to states as a team for cross-country, he’s had close calls in indoor relays, too.
“When Mark Sullivan was there in 1983 or 1984 we were at West Point on a Friday night and we were a shoo-in for the 4x800,” Clark said. “Charlie Iachetta started and coming around the first turn a hand was going forward and Charlie’s was going back and the baton went up in the air and under the stands. By the time he got it back we were 100 meters behind. We’ve gone outdoors two times at least, once with Julian [Sheinbaum] and once with David Ginsberg.”
Scarsdale’s foursome, which hopes to run at nationals, has seen the photo of the indoor 2008 distance medley relay team of Julian Sheinbaum, Caleb Duncanson, Jacob Wexler and David Benezra that was All-American and third in the nation, hanging up at the high school. The current group will likely stick with the 4x800 because they don’t have a fast enough distance runner for the DMR or enough sprinters for the sprint medley relay.
Until then the team has focused on the two weeks between state qualifiers and states, which takes place March 2 at Ocean Breeze in Staten Island.
“Just run faster, I guess,” Matusz said. “We’ve got two weeks. Ward is going to try to break 2 minutes. We’re really excited to run at states. We’re going to keep focusing on improving until then.”
Unlike at the qualifier, Jacobson and Bernard plan to go all out in both races at states. The duo has a friendly, yet competitive rivalry where they push each other in workouts and races.
“We weren’t too concerned with who won as long as we both got there,” Jacobson said. “We have a competitive nature with each other and that helps us in training. I’m happy when he achieves things and I’m sure it’s mutual.”
The team is laser-focused on making its mark on Scarsdale history.
“We’re definitely trying to cut more time,” Jacobson said. “I think it will be nice if me and Nico have fresher legs. We want to get faster and get ready for nationals.”
Scarsdale Track & Field
SECTION 1 STATE QUALIFIER
Feb. 17 at Armory
Boys: 600-meter: 1) Eric Jacobson 1:23.08; 2) Nico Bernard 1:23.65. 3,200-meter: 6) Andrew Levy 9:50.70. 4x800-meter relay: 1) Ward Bandsma, Eric Jacobson, D.J. Matusz, Nico Bernard 7:56.43. Note: Jacobson and Bernard in the 600 and the 4x800 relay team qualified for the New York State championships.
Girls: 600-meter: 9) Sierra Donovan 1:41.02. 1,000-meter: 14) Elizabeth Elcik 3:18.02. Note: State meet hopefuls Brooke Bensche in the high jump and Sophia Franco in the 600-meter both scratched due to injury.