MADISON _ Accustomed to starting rather than finishing the 4x400 relay, Roxbury's Deanna Graziani calmed herself by drawing on the pep talk given to her by injured teammate Tiffany LaRusso.
Finish it for us. We can win it.
Those eight words wended their way through Graziani's mind with the Morris County Relays title on the line.
Although nervous to be serving as anchor, Graziani, a junior, propelled the Gaels to a second-place finish in the 4x400, the last event on Monday, Jan. 5 at the relays which were held at Drew University. The silver-medal effort could be considered golden because it earned Roxbury its first relays championship since 2001.
The Gaels edged runner-up and defending champion Mendham, 40-39. The scoring was tight going into the final race of the evening. The Gaels, with 32 points, held a slim lead over Randolph and Whippany Park, which had 30 points each. Mendham was in the mix with 29 points.
"It's our first really big win," Graziani said. "I was happy I could get it done, that we could get it done."
Mendham took the 4x400 in 4:15.52 while Roxbury crossed the finish line in 4:16.86. The results of the relay were announced. The Gaels, packed up and ready to leave, waited. The contingent erupted when it heard it was the top team.
"I'm very excited," Roxbury coach Laura Schmidt said. "Coming into this meet, it was our goal to be in the top three. After the pole vault, it came down to the 4x400. We had to be second or better to win."
Schmidt said the crown was four years in the making.
"Some of girls here won the freshman meet," she said. "They're leading the way as upperclassmen. It took all this time to get to this point."
LaRusso, typically the anchor for the 4x400 team, was unable to participate after being involved in a car accident three weeks ago. LaRusso suffered whiplash and, although cleared, was not ready to run. Still, she participated with her presence and encouraging words.
Schmidt had several reasons for choosing Graziani to run the fourth leg of the crucial race.
"Deanna is the one who has made the most progress," Schmidt said. "I thought she could step up in a pressure situation. She's our toughest competitor."
Other members of the relay team were juniors Niki Alford and Daniella Carter and sophomore Alexis Smith.
"We've trained very hard since freshman year and finally won something," Carter said. "It's a really good feeling."
Alford said she "knew we had it in us."
"It's great," said Alford. "We've gotten so close. We do a lot of things together. We train and just hang out."
Senior Olivia Viparina, bound for James Madison University, ran anchor for Roxbury when it won the 1,600 sprint medley in 4:23.03. Other members of that triumphant unit were Graziani, Alford and Emily Silfies. Morris Hills and Parsippany were second and third, respectively.
When Viparina was handed the baton, the Gaels were in second place. She knew it was an important race and "the pressure was on us to do well." Viparina felt the heat but didn't mind, coming in 40 meters ahead of Morris Hills' Rhianna Follet.
"My teammates definitely set me up well," Viparina said. "I hung behind a little and gauged the race. I felt strong and took the lead at the beginning of the second lap. Pressure doesn't really bother me. I like it. If there are high expectations, I'm more motivated. I want to push myself. I don't just settle in. I wanted it for the team."
Roxbury was second to Chatham in the shuttle hurdles. Silfies, Graziani, Nina Trasente and Catherine Larkin comprised that contingent which had a 34.65.
The second-place Minutemen turned in some fine performances as well, capturing the 4x200, 4x400 and the pole vault.
Whippany Park junior Nickolette Dunbar continued her dominance in the shot put with a throw of 44-01.5. Her teammate, Kathryn Mastriciano, came in sixth with a put of 33-05.75 as the Wildcats claimed that event.
"I just relaxed," said Dunbar, whose first attempt was her best. "I had a few other good throws. I'm very excited we won."
Dunbar has been even more successful than in the past because of spinning rather than gliding.
"Spinning has helped so much," she said. "With the glide, there's a pause. Spinning is one fluid motion."
The Wildcats won the high jump, too, thanks to the efforts of Kristen Hall and Gina Dello Russo. Hall had a jump of five feet. Montville's Leah Wis posted a jump of five feet, two inches.
Liz Lansing, sidelined by a foot injury for several months, returned to action and was key to the first-place finishes by Randolph in the 4x800 and distance medley relays.
Chatham sophomore Simone Kirton, along with teammates Rashida Hayes, Phoebe Nichols and Sarah Prill, were tops in the shuttle hurdles with a 34.20.
Latest from Sandy Seegers