By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- It's an easy question for all four members of Strasburg's boys 4x100-meter relay team to answer. What has made that group so successful on the track this season?
"Definitely our handoffs," junior Colton Funk answers, needing little time to ponder the question. "We changed our handoffs at the very beginning of the season and shaved at least tenths [of seconds off our time]. It was great. It was actually coach [Emily] Brandon's idea, so give props to coach Brandon."
That subtle and yet not so minor tweak to the Rams' relay handoffs came a few weeks into the spring season, when Brandon -- Strasburg's jumps/sprinters coach for the last three years -- finally decided that the Rams were going to do away with the underhand method they had used in previous years. Instead, Funk and senior Michael Conley, junior Cody Darr and sophomore Tyrik "Papoose" Steed were going to utilize an overhand method.
Not only does the overhand method provide more security during the handoff -- the most crucial part of any relay race -- but it also has actually made the Rams' 4x100-meter quartet faster.
"I think it's really helped them," Brandon said. "It definitely helps the boys who are on the turn because they have it in their outside arm and they're able to pump with it."
The switch might seem simple enough, but it took the Rams a while to get used to it. Conley, who has raced the third leg of the 4x100 relay since his freshman season, admitted it took him a little longer than the other three to get accustomed to the new exchange.
"The first day the other guys picked it up pretty quick," Conley said. "I'm used to the old handoff from the last three years that I've been running it. They picked it up pretty quick so it was just me having to get in there and get synchronized with them. But after that, it's great now."
The Rams have since hit their stride, beginning when they qualified for the Group 2A state meet in the 4x100 relay at the Stonewall Jackson Invitational back on May 2, when they finished second with a time of 45.88 seconds.
Five days later, Conley, Darr, Funk and Steed crossed another one of their goals off the list, when they won the annual Shenandoah County track and field meet with a time of 45 seconds. That mark set a new county meet record, as the Rams beat the previous mark of 45.60 seconds set by Stonewall Jackson in 2011.
"It was just a great feeling," Conley said. "We all kind of hugged it out and stuff like that. It brought us closer -- it accomplished one of our goals. It just felt awesome."
The Rams have also gone on to win both the Bull Run District and Conference 35 titles in the 4x100 relay over the last two weeks.
Since qualifying for the state meet on May 7, this year's 4x100 relay team has been focused on another milestone -- topping the school record of 45.14 seconds (this year's mark of 45 seconds converts officially to 45.24) that was set by last year's team. Both Conley and Darr were members of that record-setting team last season, alongside former standouts Rakwon White and Troy Gordon.
This year's team hasn't missed a beat despite Funk and Steed competing in track for the first time.
"We had a great team last year, and this year we're almost just as good as last year. We're closing in on the record that we set," Darr said.
"We're doing speeds that they were doing, and you know how they were really fast," Funk said of last year's team.
The Rams credit the new handoff as a major reason for their success this year, but performing a successful exchange also requires a good bit of cooperation.
"It's all about good communication and knowing when your runner comes in and when you should take off," Conley said. "It's all about distance and judging his speed and everything like that. Everything's got to be nice and smooth."
A typical 4x100 relay race for Strasburg begins with Darr, who runs the opening leg. His goal is simple.
"I try to get us the lead. Get it to the second guy and try to keep a good lead between all of them," Darr said.
As Darr approaches Steed in preparation for the exchange to the second leg of the race, Darr gives his teammate a verbal cue signaling Steed when to start his own stride. As Darr closes the distance, he then yells, "Stick," alerting Steed to reach his left hand behind his back to receive the baton.
"We don't let go of it until we see their hand wrapped around it and we know they have it secured," Darr said. "You just let it go and let them take it from there."
That process repeats itself around the track, as the baton is passed from Steed to Conley and then eventually to Funk for the final leg of the race. The exchanges are almost always clean, but if not, that's where the benefit of the overhand exchange comes in.
"The good thing about ours is that we can go back into it. If we miss it the first time we can go back into it, instead of the underhand where if you miss you're pretty much done," Steed said.
The team has continued to perfect their exchanges, and a majority of the Rams' practice time and pre-race warm-up is still dedicated to working on their handoffs.
Strasburg's 4x100 relay team has two more chances to break that school record this season, beginning next Wednesday at the 2A East Regional meet at Monticello High School in Charlottesville. The Rams hope to have everything perfected in time for the state meet in two weeks.
"I think if we don't get [the school record] on Wednesday, we have a good shot of getting it at states," Brandon said. "When we have some good competition that we'll have at these meets, I think it's absolutely possible."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD