Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Hard work, motivation fuel track & field success

Mark Williamson ’11 (left) and Cecil Jeffrey ’13 finish first and second, respectively, in the 400M dash during the NEWMAC Championship in Springfield, Mass.

In 2009, when the Wheaton men’s outdoor track & field team returned home from the 2009 NCAA Championship held in Marietta, Ohio, the ride back seemed so much longer than the trip there. They were awash in disappointment.

The Lyons sent seven men to the championship, including two nationally ranked relay teams, but came home empty-handed. The 4x100-meter relay team was disqualified due to a false start, and the 4x400M team didn’t advance out of the preliminary round. The Lyons also failed to score points in any individual events.

But fast-forward to a year later and the Lyons came back from the 2010 outdoor championship with a pair of national titles in the 4x100M and 4x400M relays, with their tie for fifth place overall finish among 83 schools at the event. Seven individual athletes were crowned national champions—the most ever for the team.

What a difference a year made. So, what happened? Hard work fueled by inspiration, say the coaches and team members.

For many years the men’s team has posted a number of top 10 placements, but the squad had never snagged the biggest prizes in the track events, until the 2010 season. That’s when the team solidified its place as one of the athletic department’s top programs.

Of the department’s 18 All-America awards during the 2009–2010 academic year, 15 came from the men’s track & field program.

Name Major Indoor All-America awards Outdoor All-America awards Career
Merzudin Ibric ’10 International
Relations
Fourth in 400M (individual)

Fifth in 4x400M relay (team)

National champion in 4x100M relay (team) and 4x400M relay (team) Five-time All-American
Raiyan Banaji ’11 Economics National champion in 4x100M relay (team)
Mark Cimino ’11 Sociology National champion in 4x100M relay (team)
Mark Williamson ’11 Economics Fifth in 4x400M relay (team) National champion in 4x400M relay (team) Two-time All-American
Cailean Robinson ’12 Psychology Third in 55M (individual)

Fifth in 4x400M relay (team)

National champion in 4x100M relay (team)

Third in 100M (individual)

Five-time All-American
Cecil Jeffrey ’13 Economics National champion in 4x400M relay (team)
Ben Miklovich ’13 Environmental
science/ecology
Fifth in 4x400M relay (team) National champion in 4x400M relay (team) Two-time All-American

Co-head coach Marc Mangiacotti said that the 2009 results were definitely disappointing, but he and the team could see the potential and couldn’t wait to go for it again.  “I think that experience really set us up to have the success we had the following year. We were ready to go,” said Mangiacotti.

So the coaching staff set out to make sure 2010 ended differently. Mangiacotti, whose expertise is in sprints and hurdles, is responsible for all of the team’s running events. He dared his runners to think about what they could achieve with just a few small improvements in their performances.

He took team members aside for a conversation. He showed each of them their previous best results and compared them to what the 2009 NCAA champion had done in that event. In many cases, it was a demonstration of just how close the team was to achieving great success.

“We challenged each of them before the season. We set goals for everyone after looking at our finish in 2009.  We wanted them to realize that if we put the time in and all just got a little bit better, we could be really good,” said Mangiacotti.

According to his runners, the motivational words seem to have made all the difference.

Raiyan Banaji ’11 vividly recalls that pre-season talk with the coaches. “I remember getting the biggest adrenaline boost from that,” he said. “It really got us thinking about what it would feel like to be national champions. All of us knew deep down that there was something within us. Then we just made it happen.”

Mark Cimino ’11 echoes the feeling. “The coaches challenged us before the season. Coach Mangiacotti stressed the fact that if we all put forth a little more effort and were a little more dedicated that everything would fall into place.”

The team responded during the indoor season in the winter of 2010 by tying for ninth at the NCAA Championship. It was the Lyons’ best showing in the indoor championship since 2004. It also marked the seventh time in 13 appearances that the Wheaton men had finished in the top 10 indoors. In all, Wheaton collected six All-America honors.

The winter success was just a prelude to what happened during the outdoor season last spring. Both the 4x100M and 4x400M relay teams broke school records during the regular season to earn spots in the NCAA Championship. They entered the NCAA meet with the country’s fastest times in both relays. There, the Wheaton men accomplished what no other Lyon track & field team had ever achieved at an NCAA Championship, capturing national titles in both relays during the final day of competition.

Before the competition only four Lyon men had ever claimed a national championship. Those titles came in the individual field events of the high, long and triple jumps. The seven men on the relay teams were added to that list.

“Winning at the NCAA Championship was probably the greatest moment of my life so far,” said Mark Williamson ’11, who was part of the 4x400M relay team.

Paul Souza, now in his 17th year at the helm of the men’s and women’s programs and third as co-head coach, said that he has always believed that the upperclassmen would set the tone for a successful team. And that factor certainly contributed to so much success in the 2010 season.

“It’s tremendously important to have the younger athletes looking up to them,” said Souza. “If they impart that enthusiasm in the younger athletes, some really amazing things can happen.”

Merzudin Ibric ’10 was one of those team leaders. A five-time All-American and three-time U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic team choice, he was named the 2011 recipient of the NCAA Inspiration Award. (In September, he also received the Eastern College Athletic Conference Award of Valor, which honors student-athletes whose courage, motivation and relentless determination serve as an inspiration to all.)

“We all worked together and kept an eye on one another to make sure everything was going well on the track and off the track,” said Ibric. “We pushed each other, and as a result we achieved a lot as a team.”

Ibric represents the type of student-athlete—focused, mentally disciplined, and committed to succeeding both in and out of the classroom—that the coaching staff now is able to recruit more and more, as the program becomes more successful.

“Over time we’ve been able to build a polished product that we can sell,” said Mangiacotti, now in his seventh year at Wheaton and third as co-head coach.  “If we can get face time with the kids we’re recruiting, we’ve been able to sell them not just on athletics but also on the academic experience they’ll have at Wheaton. I think it’s important because the academic experience launches the rest of their career when they leave Wheaton. It’s allowed us to recruit in state, out of state and even internationally.”

Cailean Robinson ’12 is proof positive that the emphasis on both academics and athletics is a draw. “I was immediately attracted to Wheaton because I could run with the best and not sacrifice my academics,” he noted.

Banaji sums up the combination that has been critical to success, and is the formula for more in the future: “Coach Mangiacotti and Coach Souza have created a perfect balance between work and play, discipline and sportsmanship, and respect and camaraderie. Without that we wouldn’t have done so well.”