Since 1987, Westmont head coach Russell Smelley has had a tradition every four years where he invites his Warrior Track and Field teams to join him on a journey back east. The trip includes rich competition, historic sightseeing and the opportunity to get a taste of Smelley’s life pre-Westmont.
“For the past 10 days,” began Smelley, “51 team members have been able to adapt, cooperate, and learn from their opportunity to experience historical sights, train on varied terrain, and travel on a bus together from places such as Gettysburg to D.C.”
The coach grew up in Virginia and graduated from the University of Richmond with a B.A. in English and Physical Education. Smelley also went on to acquire his teaching credential and Masters in Education from the University.
Most notably to his athletes, Smelley was an All-American mid-distance runner for the Spiders, with seven school records to his credit. Upon graduation, Smelley also served as a coach for both the women’s and men’s track and field and cross country programs.
This year, the trip not only included competition at The Fred Hardy Invitational at the University of Richmond, but also a handful of historic stops along the way. Smelley and the Warriors made stops in locations that included Gettysburg, Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg.
Last Sunday, March 13, the teams spent the morning touring the Gettysburg Museum and partook in a battlefield tour. The following evening, the scene shifted to the nation’s capital, where the group spent hours on a tour of capitol monuments.
Another highlight of the trip was on Wednesday, when the group traveled to Charlottesville, Va. There, the Warriors were hosted by the family of freshman Will Hoover, who is native to Charlottesville, for a home-cooked meal.
“Observers throughout the trip commented to me about how nice they found the group and how they enjoyed working with them,” said Smelley. “That is a good testament to who they are becoming.”
Finally, the group then traveled to Richmond for the weekend. After working out at the facility on Thursday, Westmont men’s and women’s track and field competed in the Fred Hardy Invitational on Friday.
The individual highlight of Friday was the performance of Zola Sokhela, who quickly punched his ticket to Gulf Shores, Ala. Sokhela, the reigning NAIA Outdoor National Champion in the men’s 1500, placed first in the event on Friday after coming in with a time of 3:52.26.
Sokhela ran the race faster than 50 other competitors on Friday, and earned an automatic qualification to the 2022 NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, after coming in a full second ahead of the A-Standard.
Sokhela took part in the 5000 meter run, where he finished second out of 18 athletes. More importantly, with a time of 14:48.34, Sokhela earned a B-Standard qualifying time in the event.
On the women’s side, the lone Warrior to earn an automatic qualifying time into Outdoor Nationals was sophomore Anneline Breytenbach. Breytenbach finished first of 26 athletes in the women’s 5,000 meter run after coming in with a time of 17:35.57. Her time was a little more than half a second fast enough to earn an A-Standard mark in the event, ensuring her an invitation to Gulf Shores in May.
“Anneline Breytenbach seems to have ‘it,’” reflected Smelley. “Her 5,000 meter run was a study in racing acumen. Staying with the race leaders, moving with each break in the race, remaining relaxed as the race effort increased, and then taking the lead to not let the pace decrease.
“With 250 meters to go, and two runners on her heels, she stretched out her effort and ran to the win in fine fashion. It was the fifth-best Westmont performance of all time in the event. It was fun to watch and capped off a successful team experience at my alma mater in a meet named for my coach, Fred Hardy. It was a satisfying moment among many on our spring break trip.”
The Warriors did not receive any other qualifying times or marks to Outdoor Nationals, but there were a couple other noteworthy performances on Friday.
One particular moment that stood out to Smelley was an 800 meter race in which freshman Rey Laureano took part. Laureano ran even splits, kept within striking distance of the heat leader, and darted to the finish line, finishing six seconds ahead of his previous best and ahead of the others in his heat.
Still, after so much improvement, the freshman made Smelley proud with his understanding of the moment and desire to get better.
“Coach,” began Laureano to Smelley, “I didn’t break 2:00.”
Laureano, while setting a new personal record, hopes to improve upon his 2:00.88 time in the 800 meter run later this season.
“One of the most satisfying moments for me in teaching and coaching is when someone ‘gets it,’” offered Smelley. “Rey Laureano experienced that ‘moment’ during that 800 meter race on Friday.”
Kari Anema missed a B-Standard mark in the women’s 1,500 meter run by just a seventh of a second after finishing the race in 4:43.57. The B-Standard mark for the race stands at 4:43.50. Anema finished the event 11th out of 59 competitors.
Another Warrior who flirted with a qualifying standard was Abby Rumohr, who competed in the women’s pole vault. After clearing 3.05, 3.20m, and 3.50m on her first attempts, Rumohr was unable to clear 3.65m in any of her three attempts. Unfortunately, on this occasion, Rumohr missed out on an automatic or provisional qualifying mark. The A-Standard for Outdoor Nationals is 3.65m, and the B-Standard is 3.55m.
Following the conclusion of the meet, and before their departure back to Santa Barbara, Smelley got to take the Warriors on final detour, perhaps the most special stop of the trip.
“I’m dwelling in a sense of satisfaction of working with young people who are establishing themselves as individuals and learning how to cultivate their talents,” concluded Smelley. “The final evening of the trip, my family, aunts, uncles, cousins, and brothers put on a Virginia feast for the team. It was a delightful time of food, conversation, and play that capped off a good trip.
“We are enjoying these moments together. I know there are meaningful connections and ‘aha’ moments for each of us from these experiences.”
Smelley’s Warriors will continue their journey together this weekend in Santa Barbara, when the Warriors host both the Adam/Klein Combined Events, as well as the Westmont Classic on Saturday. Live coverage will be available on the Westmont Athletics website.
Jacob Norling is the sports information assistant at Westmont College.