When it comes to track and cross country in Rhode Island, especially at the high school and collegiate levels, Bob Rothenberg is a person that has worn (and still wears) several hats.
For nearly two decades (1983-2000), Rothenberg was the head coach for the Brown University track and cross-country teams. He's also served as a race director for 22 years for the Ivy League school's two major regional (cross country and indoor track) high school meets. Among a never-ending list of other endeavors, Rothenberg is also a track official for the Interscholastic League and has been involved with the state outdoor championships, held every June at Brown, since the early 1980s, acting as the race director for the past three years.
To say that Rothenberg has seen a lot of talented young runners over the years would be an understatement to the highest degree. But in all those years of witnessing some of the best prep milers that the state has had to offer, Rothenberg can't recall a year quite like the 2009 indoor track season.
Currently, the nation's smallest state is making one of the biggest impacts in track and field's most popular event. As of Feb. 13, Little Rhody has three of its milers among the top 18 nationwide. Westerly High senior Andrew Springer leads the crop with his state-record time of 4:09.16, second best in the country. The East Greenwich High duo of senior Mark Feigen (11th, 4:14.68) and junior Nick Ross (18th, 4:16.52) complete the terrific trio. Only the state of Texas can boast a more talented group with three among the first 10, including The Woodland's Drew Butler (fourth, 4:09.62) and Reed Connors (fifth, 4:11.26) and C.J. Brown (10th , 4:14.29) of Carroll Southlake.
"In all my years in Rhode Island," Rothenberg said, "I've never seen three quality guys like this at the same time in the state."
For most of the indoor season, Springer held the distinction as the nation's best for the mile. In what turned into a classic showdown at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center, he lost that title on Feb. 7 when he finished just a stride behind eventual winner Mac Fleet (4:09.06) of University City, CA, in the junior mile of the Reebok Boston Indoor Games.
Springer, who presently owns the country's top time in the 3,000 (8:27.21), would normally not have to worry too much about his RI competition with the times he has been running this winter. But with the East Greenwich tandem of Feigen and Ross breathing down his neck, that hasn't been the case. In fact, it was Feigen that spoiled the Westerly runner's unbeaten cross-country season this past fall with a narrow 1.2-second win at the New England Championships, held at Derryfield Park in Manchester, NH.
Collectively, the highlight of RI's finest harriers occurred back on Jan. 27 at the Yale Invitational when Springer led a 1-2-3 finish inside the Coxe Cage, smashing a 20-year-old state record by more than two seconds with a 4:10.61 clocking. Feigen placed as the runner-up with Ross taking third, each registering their personal bests. The Ocean State sweep earned the threesome a slot at the prestigious Millrose Games high school mile, a nine-person field that attracts some of the top milers in the country to Madison Square Garden.
Springer declined the invitation and focused on the Reebok meet, but the Columbia University-bound Feigen did the state proud by taking third (4:20.43) at Millrose. Ross was eighth (4:24.39).
"For three to come out of Rhode Island (and earn an invitation to Millrose) is kind of remarkable," Rothenberg said. "For three to come out of any state is remarkable…These guys have raised the bar for now and the future in terms of what a quality performance is."
With the northeast region pummeled with a heaping dose of snow this winter, Springer, Feigen and Ross have dealt with less-than-ideal conditions in which to train. Rothenberg also states they don't have the best indoor facilities.
The former Brown coach did go on to say that they do have the advantage of some good, quality meets, all within close proximity, such as the Yale Invitational, the Brown Invitational and a handful of New York invites. He also feels good coaching has benefited the trio.
"How they've done says something about the coaching they've received," Rothenberg said. "Athletes don't run at that level without good coaching. You have to give credit to the coaching. To have athletes with that amount of potential, it speaks well for the coaching. It speaks well for the individual.."
It will be interesting to see how these stellar athletes perform on Sunday in the season-ending state championships at the University of Rhode Island's Mackal Field House. The indoor facility has a fast, 200-meter oval that has produced numerous state marks throughout the years. With the trio stepping foot on the track, those record books certainly have a chance to be re-written once again.