Following every meet, Coach Chernock would post the results in the locker room. The results of Virginia intercollegiates at JMU in 1984 were typed on William & Mary letterhead. On the reverse of that letterhead, almost as if an afterthought, were the results of Penn Relays written in longhand. There had been one Olympic Trials qualifier, Jeff Powell in the 110H, and one school record broken, the 4x800m relay, by Phil Wiggins, Phil Peck, Ed Gibbons, and Phil Hoey.
The relay teams of the 1970s had team members that could “erase” an individual’s mistake or allow the coach to hide a weak leg and allow the overall team to still post a great time. Despite a strong focus on the relays, this was largely not the case in the 1980s. All members had to have a great race in order for the team to succeed. There was no margin for error. Everyone had to be dialed in. As a result, relay results were either feast or famine.
In 1973, the two mile relay of Jim Graham, Al Sharrett, Mac Collins, and Reggie Clark set the school record at Colonial Relays with a time of 7:29.9. Although the quartet of Jon George, Mike Hagon, Rich Rothschild, and John Hopke would challenge that time in 1977, the record was not broken. Both Reggie and John Hopke had the ability to erase errors given their speed at the 800.
Almost a decade later, there was a series of 800 meter runners who cycled through the 4x800 meters. Yet, for reasons that are not particularly clear, a consistent team was never developed as there was for the 4x400 meters where the runners consistently raced together as a team.
The grouping of runners that ran the 4x800 included 800 meter runners Jay Marzullo, Phil Wiggins, Phil Peck, and Ed Gibbons. It also included 1500 meter runners such as John Malone, Todd Lindsley, and Tom Noble. It also included a sprinter who would be asked to move up in distance: Phil Hoey.
In 1983, with almost no margin for error given their life-time bests, the quartet of Phil Wiggins, Jay Marzullo, Ed Gibbons, and Phil Hoey would tie the school record at Penn Relays. The makeup of that team as well as others that would follow in 1984, would reveal what the team members would do in order to break a record even if that meant running a distance that they had no interest in running.
Phil Hoey had been a sprinter in high school focusing on the 200-400 meters. He immediately found success at W&M setting the 500 meter indoor record as a sophomore and was part of the 4x400 meter relay team that broke the school record at the 1982 Carolina Relays. The team consisted of Hoey, Jim Satterley, Steve Boone, and Ed Jackson.
Highlighting the importance of being able to erase errors, Steve Boone had set the record in the open 400 meters earlier in the day but had an “off” performance leading off in the 4x400. Hoey, Jackson, and Satterley all had great performances in order to break the record.
Phil Wiggins had enormous success as a high school 800 meter runner having won the Junior Olympics 800m. Equally, Phil Peck had been an 800 meter runner in Jamaica and had won at Penn Relays as a high school athlete.
Gibbons was a great tactician not allowing other racers to determine race strategy. He would make it a habit of settling in at his own pace in the first 400m and then eating up ground in the final 300 meters. Gibbons would post a PR in the 800m of 1:50:23, Wiggins 1:50:42, and Peck of 1:51:14. But those times would be posted the following year at ECACs South Championships.
Hoey would only run a handful of open 800 meters because by his senior year Chernock was asking him to focus on the 1500. Hoey was less than impressed by this decision. At the 1984 Virginia intercollegiates at JMU, one week before Penn Relays, he would post a 1:50.72 and qualify for IC4As. That time would place Hoey at #4 on the all-time list for the 800m. Of all the members on the relay leading up to Penn, he was the only one to break 1:51 on that cold day at JMU.
The results at JMU had somewhat matched what had happened at Colonial Relays that year. In 1984, on an overcast day, the results by the relay team were equally unremarkable. The relay team consisted of Wiggins, Peck, Gibbons, and Hoey. Two of the four had not run near their lifetime bests and the team posted a 7:31.2.
None of those races was an accurate prelude to the Penn Relays. Awaiting them at Penn was Villanova, whose core runners that year were Marcus O’Sullivan and John Marshall. O’Sullivan would become a 4-time Olympian at the 800 and 1500. John Marshall would represent the USA in the 800m at the 1984 Olympics and was a national champion at the indoor 880 yards. Both were also future Villanova head coaches. The Villanova team also included John Borgese, who was on Villanova’s 1983 national championship team at the 2 mile relay.
At the 90th running of the Penn Relays, Villanova was looking to prove something. The year before they had come away with zero wins and Villanova defined themselves by success at the Relays, much more so than the NCAA Championships. On the day prior to the 4x800, it had turned the tables on Arkansas in the 4X1500m relay. Villanova had set the national record with O’Sullivan running a 3:38.6 anchor winning narrowly. But Villanova was still looking for more.
The 4x800 had started with Villanova’s leadoff running posting a 1:50.1. With Phil Wiggins leading off for William & Mary, he posted a 1:50.3. With the leadoff leg, the main strategy was to hand the baton off in contention and not lose contact. All lead runners handed off in a close bunch.
The second leg would prove critical as both Georgetown and Villanova ran a 1:49, but Phil Peck ran 1:52.7. The pressure was only about to increase as Villanova was going to try to close out the relay with its two (future) Olympians, Sullivan and Marshall, on the back end.
O’Sullivan ran a 1:48.3 and handed off in a deficit to the Hoyas of Georgetown. Gibbons would run the 3rd leg for the Tribe posting a 1:50.4 split with the race starting to get strung out. Marshall and Hoey were chasing Georgetown in the lead, the race would be decided in the final turn.
Five teams came into the final turn in contact with one another. Anchored by Marshall’s 1:47.5 split, Villanova would prevail over the Hoyas. The Tribe’s anchor Phil Hoey would post a 1:49.9. The final time for the William & Mary squad that day was 7:23:67 finishing 8th. All four William & Mary runners had run close to if not their PRs.
There have been plenty of opportunities to break the record that was set by Wiggins, Peck, Gibbons, and Hoey. There are two occasions that really stand out.
The following year, 1985, Wiggins, Peck, Gibbons, and Tom Noble would compete at ECAC South and all of them would run the open 800m in under 1:51. They had the potential to break the record at Penn Relays but they were unable to do so as they had an off day. The best attempt to break it would have to wait another 23 years.
In 2007, The Tribe was coming off of an 8th place cross-country placing at the NCAA XC
Championships in the fall but it was the rapid improvement of the middle-distance component of the squad that garnered the attention that spring.
At the IC4As in Princeton that year, and in the trials of the men’s 800m, three runners had broken 1:50 and into W&M’s top 10 list: David Groff (1:49.43), Matt Warco (1:49.85), and Ryan Jones (1:49.86). Groff and Warco would advance to the finals, with Jones missing by a painful .01.
Later that day, the Tribe would line Jones back up in the 4x800 trials with Ian Fitzgerald (future All-American in the mile) and the two steeplechasers---Sean Anastasia-Murphy and Anthony Arena. That group would qualify safely and move to the finals.
The final of the 4x800 had been a central goal for the middle distance squad all year. The primary competition was Columbia University, led by Liam Boylan-Pett, a team that had been undefeated all year including an incredible win at the Penn Relays. However, the W&M team was tired from the prior races, with each athlete at the end of a triple, making an attempt at the record very difficult.
Senior Matt Wolak, an Indoor scorer in the IC4A mile, led off and grabbed a 10 meter lead, using a huge close to run a tactical 1:51. A tired Ryan Jones defended up front, posting a 1:53 leg, but keeping the Tribe in front of Columbia.
The lead would be crucial as David Groff matched up against Boylan-Pett, the runner that Columbia was depending on again and who would split 1:48.3, which Groff negated with his strong 1:49.2. Tactically though, Columbia had grabbed a slight lead, giving William & Mary’s anchor Matt Warco options in how he wanted to run the last leg.
Warco, a great closer, waited, and waited, and waited. With 120m to go, Warco downshifted hard. Covering a 10m deficit quickly, he nailed Columbia’s anchor at the line. The final time of 7:24:97 would not break the record but a great performance nonetheless. However, it is safe to say that this group was certainly capable of a record run.
In a humorous moment following the race, the team went to dinner in downtown Princeton, before departing on the bus for Williamsburg. The 4X800 group ran into Columbia’s coach, Willy Wood, and their anchor leg Jonah Rathburn. Jonah, a tad disconsolate, mentioned that he heard the crowd go wild with 100m to go and thought to himself “it must be a great race for second.” Laughing, Coach Wood turned around and said “Yes, it was. And you were in it. And you lost.”
What is the final analysis of the 4x800m race in 1984 at Penn Relays? Villanova would post their 2nd best time in order to win the race with a time of 7:15:17.
What about the other universities? Georgetown was narrowly beaten and would post their program’s 2nd best time with a time of 7:16.31. Without listing all the other universities that beat William & Mary that day, it is interesting how their time compares to all the universities that have run the 4x800. When doing so, the quartet of Wiggins, Peck, Gibbons, and Hoey rank 23rd in the collegiate system. Unlike the winning team at Penn Relays in 1983, there is no picture of the team that day at Penn.
But the time endures.