To say the return of April’s Woodbury Relays was something South Jersey track and field runners looked forward to after a two-year COVID hiatus would be selling the annual gold watch event way short of the excitement it brings coaches, athletes and parents.
The relays are without a doubt one of the signature spring meets that track programs typically circle on their calendars before the season even starts. So when it was confirmed that the 48th version was on, the hype was real, especially when the majority of high-school track and field athletes had yet to compete in the event since it last took place in 2019.
In the Winslow Township program, almost an entire generation of athletes were eager for the first chance to show what they could do on Howard V. Staeger Memorial Track in Woodbury.
“They’d all heard stories about it from the older girls about the gold watches and what it’s like to run there, and they’ve even seen them from their past teammates that won some, so they were looking to get their own chance to get one,” coach Shawnnika Brown said.
Having been co-champions with Timber Creek for the 2019 Division 3 title, the Eagles looked forward to winning the 2022 title outright. Winslow more than delivered, racking up 60 points after winning six of the seven total relays on the day. The Eagles’ points total more than doubled that of second-place Hammonton, which scored 29.
Senior Jaia James was fortunate enough to compete in the Woodbury event her freshman year, when she won a gold watch as part of the team’s 4×100 relay. Then the pandemic put the relays on hold for two years. Because of that, James was excited to compete there again last month and see her progress over four years.
“I was excited to go out there and have a strong performance and see the growth I’ve made from my freshman year to what’s now my senior year,” she said. “I really wanted to be able to pick up where the seniors that were here when I was a freshman left off, because I know they were successful.
“From a captain’s perspective, I was hoping that everyone that came for the meet would be able to leave with a gold watch,” James added.
As confirmed by Brown, every Winslow girls runner who made the trip to Woodbury did leave with a token of their success. The top team in each relay of the division wins gold watches for a first-place performance.
Winslow was honored with the Ted Klepac Memorial Award for having the fastest 4×800 relay time, and the Reds Holdcraft Memorial Award for having the fastest 4×100 relay time across four girls’ divisions. James was named the Most Courageous Athlete as part of four winning relays on the day.
Seeing the hard work from her team in the months leading the relays, Brown said, was beyond rewarding.
“I knew we had a good chance to do really well in a few of the relays, but there are a few others where we didn’t know what to expect from other teams. and our shuttle-hurdle team especially has been kind of off and on,” he said. “But we wanted to just go there and run the way we know we can.
“For a coach, it was an amazing feeling to see the work that we’d put in since the summertime starting to come to fruition.”
Briyel Brown was a part of two winning relays for the Eagles, in both the 4×200 and 4×400. The junior – whose mom ran at Willingboro and competed at the Woodbury Relays during high school – looked forward to competing in the meet for many years.
“I was more than aware of how prestigious and big of a stage it is for South Jersey track, so I was excited to get to go,” she said. “Our goal was to just go out there and get the stick around the track and do what I could do as the leadoff man to put the the team in the right position as best I could.”
Getting the right order and chemistry for a relay team takes significant time and practice, both of which Winslow clearly put in leading up the relays. According to Briyel, the months of practice and the camaraderie during the pandemic helped foster strong bonds that meant the girls team as a whole ran for one another, not themselves.
“We’ve all learned to trust each other and be comfortable with who we’re handing off to or getting the baton from,” Briyel said. “We all feed off each other at practice or in meets; it feels like a family out there on the track for us.”