Junior Austin Wechter (shown here at the 2007 BIG EAST Indoor Championships) qualified for the NCAA Mideast Regional in the 400-meter hurdles with a season-best time of 52.34 seconds at Saturday's Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. <i>(photo by Derrick Peynado)</i>

Irish Defend 4 x 1,600-Meter Relay Title At 98th Annual Drake Relays

April 28, 2007

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – For the second consecutive season and fourth time in the past six years, Notre Dame won the men’s 4 x 1,600-meter relay title at the prestigious Drake Relays, which completed its 98th running Saturday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. The Irish dominated this year’s field to win by more than 16 seconds over Missouri, covering the four-mile race in a school-record time of 16:21.27.

Senior Todd Ptacek (Benton Harbor, Mich./Lake Michigan Catholic) ran a 4:07 opening leg, followed by sophomore Patrick Smyth (Salt Lake City, Utah/Judge Memorial), who clocked in at 4:06 for the second circuit. Junior Jake Watson (Stillwater, Minn./Stillwater Area) took the baton for the pivotal third leg and ran a blistering 4:02, giving a huge lead to senior All-American Kurt Benninger (Chepstow, Ont./Walkerton D.S.S.), who anchored Notre Dame to a 4 x1,600-meter relay title at Drake for the third time in his career, closing in 4:04.

“This year, we kind of wanted to seal it a little earlier,” Benninger said. “I’m coming back from an injury, so it’s only my second race. We didn’t want to leave too much to chance. With Jake (Watson) running third, he’s run 4:05 this year, there’s no one on that leg that was going to be able to stay with him. I just wanted to get out strong. If anybody wanted to make a go of it, they’d have to go out too hard and it wouldn’t matter. I just wanted to go out strong and settle in.”

Ptacek, Watson and Benninger all ran for Notre Dame on last year’s 4 x 1,600-meter relay champion at Drake. Benninger also anchored the victorious Irish quartet in 2004, while Smyth was the lone newcomer on this year’s relay. Notre Dame now has won the 4 x 1,600 relay five times in the 98-year history of the Drake Relays, picking up the hardware in 1942, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007.

The Irish also had standout performances in other events this weekend, both at Drake and the Hillsdale Gina Relays in Hillsdale, Mich. All told, Notre Dame men’s and women’s track & field athletes combined for four NCAA Mideast Regional marks (two new, two improved) and 11 BIG EAST Conference Championship qualifications (four new, seven improved) and tacked on three top-10 performances on the Irish all-time charts.

The Notre Dame men’s 4 x 800-meter relay unit was one of the weekend’s headliners, taking second place at the Drake Relays with the second-fastest time in school history (7:22.42). Junior Adam Currie (Verdun, Quebec/Richelieu Valley) led off, followed by freshman Cameron Eckert (Markle, Ind./Norwell), with junior John Cavanaugh (Granger, Ind./South Bend St. Joseph’s) and senior All-American Thomas Chamney (Tipperary, Ireland/St. Columba’s) capping the relay for the Irish. Chamney also lowered his Mideast Regional time in the 800 meters, hitting the tape in a season-best 1:48.56 at Drake.

Junior Austin Wechter (Shelby, Ohio/Shelby) ran a season-best 52.34 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles at Drake to book his place in the Mideast Regional. Meanwhile, at the Hillsdale Gina Relays, sophomore Anna Weber (Indianapolis, Ind./Roncalli) uncorked a personal-best hammer throw of 54.31 meters (178-2) to earn a regional berth, and freshman Jaclyn Espinoza (Keizer, Ore./Regis) lengthened her Mideast Regional mark in the discus throw with a winning mark of 49.76 meters (163-3). Espinoza’s throw also was the third-longest in school history, and best since 2000, when Dore DeBartolo recorded a mark of 51.56 meters (169-2) at the Billy Hayes Invitational.

Several Irish athletes added conference qualifying performances on the weekend. At Drake, junior Brett Adams (Davenport, Iowa/Assumption) enjoyed a successful homecoming with a personal-best 3:47.85 in the 1,500 meters to surpass the BIG EAST standard. At Hillsdale, senior Dave Viken (Arlington Heights, Ill./Rolling Meadows) and freshman Matt Schipper (Leo, Ind./Bishop Dwenger) both cleared 4.85 meters (15-11) in the pole vault to boost their previous BIG EAST qualifications, while sophomore Tray Morgan (Daphne, Ala./McGill-Toolen Catholic) was a first-time qualifier in the event (4.55m/14-11). Sophomore Jeff Mensch (Del Mar, Calif./Torrey Pines) also topped the conference minimum in the shot put with a personal-best heave of 46.87 meters (153-9).

On the women’s side, junior Elizabeth Philipp (Kingwood, Texas/Kingwood) worked her way into the BIG EAST field for the 3,000-meter steeplechase, clocking a personal-best 11:20.52 at Hillsdale. Senior Ann Mazur (Pittsburgh, Pa./Seton-LaSalle) did likewise in the Hillsdale 5,000 meters (17:42.60), while freshman Elise Knutzen (Seattle, Wash./Nathan Hale) improved her BIG EAST qualifier in the javelin throw, winning the Hillsdale event at 41.37 meters (135-9).

Notre Dame now turns its attention to the BIG EAST Championships, slated for May 4-6 at the George J. Sherman-Family Sports Complex in Storrs, Conn. The Irish men are the defending outdoor conference champions, while Notre Dame’s women finished a close second to Pittsburgh last year.

— ND —