'Team DePaul' Makes History at BIG EAST Track and Field Meet
Feb. 28, 2014
CHICAGO – As Tonderai Tomu got ready for the most important race of his life, the DePaul senior sprinter glanced up and saw his teammates from the men’s and women’s teams lined up along the track unleashing their raucous support.
The final event at last weekend’s BIG EAST Indoor Track and Field Championships in New York City was the men’s 4x400-meter relay. DePaul had a shot to finish third and earn a trophy.
Tomu began thinking this is so different having so much support. If I mess up, this is it.
“Part way through the race, I felt a pulled muscle,” Tomu said. “Should I stop? I saw the whole team standing there watching me. I can’t stop. I can’t let this team down. It’s all different now. We eat lunch together, hang out and study together. Before, you practiced and then everybody went their own way.
“If I stop, this is the deciding race. If I don’t finish and pass the baton, we don’t get third place. I will blame myself for the rest of my life.
“As I'm running, I thought about the American sprinter (Manteo Mitchell) who ran the last half-lap of the 4x4 at the 2012 London Olympics with a broken leg. If he can run on a broken leg, I can finish this race.
“This is my last race. Pass it to Brandon (Threats). This was the only race Brandon could run. For my team, I’ll do anything.”
Tomu ignored the pain and passed the baton. His gutsy performance in the final race of a sparkling career helped the Blue Demons capture the 4x4 title and lifted DePaul into third place---the highest BIG EAST finish in program history. The women's team came in fifth---another program best in the BIG EAST.
This is what coach Dave Dopek has been building towards the last three years. When individuals in a solo-performing sport like track become caught up in a team dynamic, you get someone like Tomu doing more for his team than he would for himself.
You develop the camaraderie where the Blue Demons were the only team at the New Balance Track and Field Center at the New York City Armory to have both the men’s and women’s team cheering intensely for one another.
All that raucous support led to Xavier Jones winning the 60-meter dash, Tomu, Jones and Mac Melto finishing 1-2-3 in the 200m, Melto and Tomu going 1-2 in the 400m, Matt and Anthony Babicz coming in first and second, respectively, in the shot put and Sarah Moss winning the women’s shot put title.
Tomu was honored as the Male Athlete of the Meet.
“Last weekend, there was much more support all around,” Babicz said. “Everyone was fighting for each other rather than solely focusing on themselves.
“When we heard DePaul’s name called out for third place, we just erupted. We all started screaming, chest-bumping and high-fiving. Even the coaches were screaming.”
Tomu added: “The ladies were screaming even louder than us. I felt like I had just won the Olympics.”
Moss nodded her head.
“I cried a little bit while I was screaming,” Moss said. “We wanted the men to do well, and they wanted us to do well. It was an incredible finish for the men.”
There is a new power emerging on the BIG EAST track and field landscape led by a coach who was the NCAA Indoor Track and Field 200-meter champion in 1995.
“This is no longer just talk,” Threats said. “We have proven we can place in the top three. This is not the same track team that DePaul used to have. After what we did, the whole team has started believing in itself. Coach Dopek knows what he is talking about. We have to keep improving in our times and go for a title in the spring.”
Melto echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“There’s a new attitude on this team,” Melto said. “If I want to be first in the BIG EAST, first I have to be better than my teammates at DePaul. When we’re racing against each other in the finals, that means there’s more points for our team.”
Not only was DePaul competing against teammates at the conference meet, but how about brother against brother?
“It was awesome that me and my brother finished 1-2 in the shot put,” Matt Babicz said. “It’s a privilege to compete with him in Division I track and field. Not many people get an opportunity like that. He is my permanent training partner, and I’m thankful to DePaul for making this all possible.
“After our 1-2 finish, people were calling us ‘The Throws Bros.’ I think we can go 1-2-3 in the outdoor track season. It’s really cool that our program has progressed to the point where we are competing with teammates to win an event.
"There are good, healthy rivalries and competitions within our team. That’s something we haven’t experienced, and you’re going to see a lot more of that in the outdoor season. We are stacked in the discus and could go 1-2-3-4-5 at the conference meet.”
What we may have seen in Manhattan was the “Origin of Team DePaul”
“As a team, we have become as one,” Threats said. “We were like The Avengers in New York, a bunch of Marvel Comics superheroes banding together and having each other’s backs.
“For our relay team, Tonderai is like Captain America because he’s our fearless leader. Mac is the Hulk because he won’t let anyone beat him without a fight. Xavier is Quicksilver with all his speed and I’ll be Thor.”
And what about Dopek and throws coach Brandon Murer?
“Coach Dopek is Professor Xavier because he is the one who brought us all together,” Threats said. Then Moss interjected: “Coach Murer has to be someone who is really strong on the outside but compassionate on the inside.”
Threats and Moss looked at each other and simultaneously blurted out “The Thing.”
Listening to all the friendly banter and seeing how this team has gotten closer made Tomu wish he was a freshman and not a senior. At the same time, he couldn’t have asked for a better ending.
“I remember my first time at the conference meet---I had no one else to race with me,” Tomu said. “This program is really stepping up. Now is the time for DePaul to shine.
“The difference from my freshman year to now is that kids back then weren’t willing to make sacrifices. In those days, guys dropped off the team or got kicked off. There wasn’t enough focus.”
Jones laughed when he looked over at Tomu and said he let the “older guy” beat him in the 200 because this was his last meet.
“I was leading the 200 when Tonderai caught up and passed me,” Jones said. “The key for us was that someone from DePaul was going to finish first, and I was fine with that. Then Mac finished strong for a 1-2-3 finish, and all three of us set personal records. It was a fun race overall.”
Led by Moss and Tayler Whittler (third in the 60m setting a school record, third in the 200m and 4x4 relay with Ayesha Ewing, Julie Dambra and Erin McCoy), the women’s team had its highest BIG EAST finish. McCoy also finished third in the 60m hurdles.
“Scoring 90 points in the BIG EAST meet is a big improvement from last year,” Moss said. “Everyone on the women’s team is proud of what we accomplished. We were happy for the men and thinking if they could finish third, we can, too. That will help motivate us to have a top-three finish in the spring.
“We’re going to be even better in the outdoor season. There are some different events that play to our strengths on the men's and women's side. That will put us in a good position for scoring. We want to show everyone that our performance in New York wasn’t a fluke.”
Dopek has made sure this is no one-hit wonder. Three consecutive top-notch recruiting classes and a team-bonding philosophy is just the beginning for this program on the rise.
“The biggest improvement we’ve made is that the team understands and recognizes that we want to be a part of something bigger,” Dopek said. “You see how individual this sport can be, and yet the kids are figuring out that they can do something pretty big as a team in this new conference.
“They brought tremendous energy to the event and carried it through. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that at DePaul. The last time I felt that kind of energy was 1995 my senior year here. That was also the last time we had as many conference champions.
“When you perform solely as an individual, it’s easier to justify a subpar performance to yourself. It’s tougher when you’re also performing for someone else.
“Your relay mates, teammates, coaches, the university community---you don’t want to let those people down. When other people are depending on you, there’s more motivation to step up.”
Since the third week of the season, Dopek has been crunching the numbers and would tell his student-athletes where they stood in the conference picture. His athletes began referring to it as Dopek’s "Magical Meet Board.”
But guess what? Dopek’s numbers projected a third-place finish.
“Forget about the numbers---they actually went out and did it,” Dopek said. “It secures a stronger sense of belief than coach talk and numbers. Now they realize they can be champions.”
And they can hardly wait to see that BIG EAST prize displayed in the trophy case.
“When I walk past the trophy case, there are no championship banners, signs or trophies about DePaul track except for coach Dopek’s awards,” Threats said. “Now, we have a team trophy to put in there (Threats smiled before adding)---if coach ever lets go of it.
“We want to do as good or better at the outdoor conference meet. We don’t want to settle for fifth or sixth place. We want to set a new standard of excellence for DePaul and for ourselves. The last time DePaul track did this well was when coach Dopek was on the team. We want to be the best DePaul has ever had.”
Melto added: “We don’t want to be a hopeful team---someone that is always hoping to do well. Now that we’ve finished in third place, it’s time to move forward. Part of becoming a championship team is that third place is nothing special. Now you want to be the best.”
“Then, it goes beyond that,” Moss said. “Winning conference isn’t everything. After we win the BIG EAST, start looking to bigger things. There’s the NCAA Championships and starting to become a force on the national level.”