Egg Harbor Township's relay team members putting together an incredible senior yearBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
It takes a little bit of a mad scientist personality to teach all day, coach all afternoon and chase around a couple of toddlers after that. That’s the life of Egg Harbor Township track coach Ryan Smith, and as any parent of two kids younger than 5 years old will tell you, after a while you kind of adopt the attitude of, “let’s try it, see what happens.”
So, Smith tinkered with his 4x400- and 4x800-meter relay teams for a couple of years before finding the right combinations. But once the Eagles found the right parts, the car took off an hasn’t slowed down since. Smith had plenty of talent to work with, as guys such as twins Alex and Robert Dessoye, Eric Barnes and Amir Brock are some of the best athletes in the school. They all are starters on the soccer team and also run indoor and outdoor track. Then, last year, cross country runner Aidin Hendriks was added to the mix, and that’s when things really started taking off. Hendriks was plugged into the third leg of each relay, and suddenly the Eagles had the right combination in both races.
In February of 2016, the EHT 4x400 team won the New Balance national championship. That led to a 2016 outdoor sectional championship and a fourth-place finish at groups. The 4x800 team won sectionals and finished second to Old Bridge at the group championships in outdoor track, and that spurred them on to a 2017 New Balance indoor national championship. That team also was the top American finisher a few weeks ago at the prestigious Penn Relays. The 4x400 team followed up last year’s outdoor success with an incredible indoor season that saw them win both the state and national championships.
“It started last year with the Meet of Champions 4x4, they really set the tone there. I think they just kept getting hungrier and were saying to themselves, ‘we performed well there, so we can do anything.’ They look forward to each big stage. At Penn Relays, they knew what they had to do, and they went out and did it,” Smith said. “You look for a hard-nosed guy to lead it off, and either of the Dessoyes can do it. Both of them run with heart every single time and they run for the team. Rob leads off our 4x8 and Alex leads off our 4x4. We know they are going to keep us in the race. Then, plugging Aidin into the third leg of each relay, he’s a guy with an extra kick at the end. Sometimes, when he gets the baton, we are like, ‘what are you doing, bud? You going to get after it?’ But then he finishes so well in the last 150 meters of both relays. And then guys like Eric Barnes and Amir Brock as anchor legs — if you are behind by 10 meters, they are going to do everything they possibly can to beat the guy in front of them.”
“We had a good relay team my sophomore year, but the next year we lost two seniors from that team, so we were trying to recover from that. Last year, we had the 4x4 down first, once we added Aidin to that team. In the 4x8, we kind of realized we would be decent because we are all good 800 runners, but we didn’t realize we would be this good, to this magnitude,” Alex Dessoye said. “Eric and I have been on the 4x8 team since freshman year and Rob and Aidin are kind of the new recruits. I’ve been back and forth between both teams. This is the first year I’ve been on the 4x8 for the whole year. We’re on a good streak and we want to carry that into counties, CALs and sectionals because that’s our biggest meet right now. We want to win that because it’s been a while since we won an outdoor sectional, so we want to end our senior season winning all the major meets like that.”
Barnes always has been a solid 800 meters runner, but has really flourished and made a name for himself as the anchor leg on the 4x800 relay team.
“This has to be one of the best teams I will be a part of, and maybe that this school has ever seen. Just what we are doing workout wise, staying healthy. It was a big confidence boost going to nationals (in indoor) and winning that, becoming the best American team (at Penn Relays) — the sky is the limit right now. There’s nothing really holding us back,” Barnes said. “That’s definitely one of the biggest meets of the year, that and nationals. When you finish as the top American team, it’s incredible. It’s an honor to do because you don’t think you’ll ever live up to that moment. I remember sophomore year we were just trying to qualify for the Penn Relays, then junior year we qualified but fell. Senior year, it was just like, if we just run our race something cool will happen.”
The teams’ success this year — the senior year for all five runners — has been even more impressive because Robert Dessoye came back quickly from a broken foot suffered late in the soccer season. That injury had the potential to derail his indoor season and put him behind the 8-ball heading into spring, but he attacked his rehab with a vengeance, knowing how good these relay teams could be if he could get back into the lineup.
“This team is amazing. I couldn’t ask for a better team. Everybody on the team I love and it’s like a family out here. I can’t wait to get out of school just to come to the track. No matter how hard the workout is going to be, I know I’ll be happy out here,” he said. “I initially did rehab to try to get back for soccer and they kept telling me no. I wasn’t listening, of course. I was walking without the boot and I’d be in the pool every day training. I feel like that helped me mentally get stronger and helped me prepare me for all these races. I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
Robert said he knew last spring, when the Eagles ran neck-and-neck with a powerhouse like Old Bridge, that they could do something special before they all graduated.
“Last year, at states, when we came in second to Old Bridge and ran a really fast time, I knew we could do something special. We broke the 7:50 barrier and that was a big deal for us because we didn’t think we could do that,” Robert said. “We don’t want to overlook CALs and counties this year, but we really want to win sectionals as a team and we want to win the 4x8 states because we haven’t done that yet. We also want to break the 7:40 barrier, which would be really cool.”
At last year’s Group 4 meet, Egg Harbor Township ran a 7:47.27, just two seconds behind an Old Bridge team that this year returns two runners, including senior Ben Rivera, a Georgetown recruit.
“It started last year in the winter workouts. We would mix the mid-distance guys with the sprinters, and when they started pushing each other it was unbelievable to see how fast they were in workouts. We felt we had to bump them up to college type workouts,” Smith said. “When it comes to states, and Old Bridge and Ray Rivera — he’s a stud going to Georgetown — we lost to them last year and I think that’s what they are really looking forward to. Then, the week after that is Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington, then a week or two after that will be the New Balance National Championships down in North Carolina.”
Then Penn Relay finish so far is the crowning achievement for the 4x800 team. Rarely does a South Jersey team even qualify for the Race of the Americas — sort of the championship round where American high school teams get to run against international teams, i.e., the Jamaicans. EHT finished as the top American team, and even beat one of the many Jamaican teams entered into the field.
“Rob and Alex had two great legs to lead off the first day at Penn Relays, and Aidin and Eric did what they had to do to get us to Saturday. Then, when Saturday came along, they were all feeling good and they all ran the times they needed to in order to put us as the top American finisher there,” Smith said. “No EHT relay team has ever won indoor nationals, been the top American finisher at Penn Relays, and won outdoor nationals, which we still have to do. They knew four Jamaican teams were in front of them and they probably weren’t going to beat them, but it was still cool. They got to the finish line and everybody was congratulating them, there were a couple of reporters there, the whole nine yards. Then they got presented with the gold watches and it was super cool to see them come away with some hardware.”
No matter what the immediate future holds, the boys know this is turning out to be a special time in their lives. Not only are they enjoying success on the track, but they are also forming bonds and friendships that likely will last a lifetime.
“We knew each other and were friends coming into high school, but we’ve gotten closer because every day we run together,” Alex Dessoye said. “We’ve kind of grown into a little family. We all ask how each other is doing. If something happens to someone we all care and we’re all there for each other.”
“They hang out together, go for ice cream. It’s cool to see them outside of track,” Smith said. “But their bond as a relay team is so good that they are going to remember this. And them all moving on to be college athletes, they may see each other at meets (like the Penn Relays). That will be cool going from teammates to opponents.”
Said Barnes, “I’ll probably remember this bond most of all. I’ve known these guys my whole life and they are my best friends, and the things we are doing with this relay team is pretty cool.”
When asked if it is sinking in just how impressive this senior year has been for all five athletes, Robert Dessoye said, “no, not yet. Maybe in a couple of months when it’s all over and we have some time to look back at it, it will hit us. But, hopefully, we have more yet to accomplish so we can leave an even better legacy.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays