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Going Out in Style

West Springfield girls 4x800 relay team wins state, earns All-America honors

For seniors Paige Kvartunas, Alex Watt and Anna Barber, four years of hard work culminated with a storybook ending to their high school days. For freshman Maddie Wittich, the first chapter of her promising prep career featured a successful conclusion. While one is staying and three are going, the West Springfield girls 4x800 relay team came together and finished the 2010 track and field season in style.

The Spartan foursome won the AAA state championship on June 5 with a state-meet-record time of 9 minutes, 8.32 seconds. Two weeks later, the team competed at the New Balance Outdoor National Track & Field Championships in Greensboro, N.C. With a change in strategy, the team earned All-America honors with a sixth-place finish and set a Virginia high school record with a time of 9:03.35.

"It was awesome," Kvartunas said. "We worked four years to get to that level, and it was the first time we’d done something that big."

At the state meet, Wittich ran the first leg, Watt the second, Barber the third and Kvartunas anchored the Spartans. While West Springfield won by more than 4 seconds, they had no time to relax.

"We were all really nervous," Barber said. "I remember talking to Paige beforehand saying, ‘I’m going to throw up.’ … [During the final lap] we were freaking out because [Osborn Park] was gaining. But Paige was going fast and the last 150 [meters] she just outkicked everyone."

At nationals, West Springfield head coach Chris Pelligrini changed the order, moving Kvartunas to the second leg and Barger to the anchor. The 27-year-old Pelligrini, in his ninth season with the program, said only four or five of the 11 teams in the fast heat had a legitimate chance of winning the race and would eventually pull away from the other teams. When the teams separated into two groups, the Spartans’ only chance, Pelligrini said, was to be part of the front pack. After Wittich’s opening leg, Kvartunas, the team’s best runner, bobbed and weaved the Spartans back into the top five. From there, Watt and Barber assured West Springfield of a top-six finish and All-America honors.

Coaching All-Americans "was honestly one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever had as a coach," Pelligrini said. "Being selected as one of 11 teams in the fast heat in the best relay in the country is an honor in itself."

While the Spartans possessed athletic ability, Pelligrini said it was the runners’ attitudes that helped them work well together and made them a joy to coach.

Kvartunas was the team’s star athlete, but didn’t act like it, the coach said. While the anchor leg is usually reserved for a relay team’s top runner, Kvartunas accepted and embraced her role of running the second leg at nationals after Pelligrini explained his strategy.

"Paige turned herself into a robotic type of athlete," Pelligrini said. "At the end, she was capable of almost anything. The type of workout she was throwing down between races showed a level of fitness I’d never seen as a coach.

"She was a superstar that never acted like it. She was unassuming. I’ve had athletes with egos so big that if I told them to do a less glamorous job than they hoped for, [they moped around]. She took the second leg and never questioned any decision."

Kvartunas received scholarship to Virginia Tech and will compete in cross-country and track next year.

"Coach put me second because he wanted us to be able to stay in the race at the national level," Kvartunas said. "I got the baton near the back — I was in eighth or ninth. I knew my goal was to catch as many people as possible."

Watt was the team’s vocal leader.

"Alex," Pelligrini said, "was the heartbeat of the team."

Watt will again be teammates with Kvartunas, this time as members of the Virginia Tech cross country and track and field teams.

"It was the perfect ending to our senior year," Watt said of the Spartans’ accomplishments. "After four years of training together — Paige and Anna and all the other girls — and to finally accomplish our goals showed how hard work pays off."

Barber is an emotional athlete. She would admit feeling nervous before a race and cry tears of joy after. She even cried while being interviewed for this story. While talented in her own right, Barber’s desire to continue working despite being overshadowed by Kvartunas and Watt made for the season’s best story, Pelligrini said.

"At most schools, she’d be the No. 1 girl," the coach said. "But it just so happened she was living in the shadow of the two best girls to ever go though West Springfield."

Pelligrini glows when he talks about Barber’s clutch performance while running the anchor leg at nationals. He said Barber ran the highest-graded girls’ race during his nine-years with the program, meaning Barber’s production was the best in relation to what her body was capable of relevant to her training. After running a personal best 2:18.8 at states, Barber shaved more than 3 seconds off at nationals, posting a 2:15.6.

Afterward, the tears flowing from Barber were a mixture of emotional joy and physical agony.

"For her to have that kind of race" at nationals was huge, Pelligrini said. "She really deserved to show what she was capable of."

Barber will attend the University of Virginia.

"It was awesome to be able to do these things," an emotional Barber said. "When we were driving back to Springfield I started crying. It’s been the best four years of my life. I love the team and I love these girls and I’m going to miss them."

While the senior trio is off at college, Wittich will attempt to carry on success at West Springfield. The freshman joined the relay team after junior Lauren Blackburn suffered a stress fracture. Wittich made the most of her opportunity.

"We’re all amazed with her," Barber said. "When we were freshmen we never could have done the things she did."

Pelligrini said he was pleased with the way Wittich approached her opportunity, using "clutch" as a one-word description of the freshman.

"The best part about Maddie was she had the right mental makeup to have that kind of role because she knew it was the seniors’ last chance," the coach said. "She’s not your typical freshman that doesn’t understand the gravity of a situation with her head in the clouds. She was nervous because she understood the gravity of the situation.

"Her temperament as a freshman is really mature beyond her years. Everybody’s light bulb turns on at a different time and it’s rare for a freshman" to step up.

Wittich said she was treated nicely by her elder teammates. She’s looking forward to her remaining seasons as a Spartan.

"I felt so accomplished because we had worked really, really hard for it," she said. "I still have three more years and I have to keep focused and work with my team."

Whether or not West Springfield can duplicate its 2010 success in the 4x800 relay is yet to be seen. For now, three hard-working seniors — with the help of a freshman — go out on top.

"What I’ll remember the most was how good it felt to watch them succeed because they’re such good people," Pelligrini said. "It felt that much better because they deserved it."