East Orange Campus' Success In The Relays Started With Belief

If you were to be a fly on the wall inside the room where decisions are made on relays for the boys track and field squad at East Orange Campus (NJ) High, you could mistake the scene for a boiler room.

Direct evaluations. Commanding statements. Emphatic hand gestures. Surefire pleas. From time to time, even raised voices. 

But 33-year-old Lance Wigfall insists it's nothing but love in those rooms.

"We agree to disagree," he said.

The head boys coach for East Orange said that's what happens when you put passionate coaches who are fighting to get their athletes on state, regional, and national-caliber relays inside a room together. 

"You have coaches trying to delegate, but we are all there for the betterment of the team," Wigfall said. "There's no animosity once we leave that room. There's no negative feelings." 

Keep in mind, he says, there's a rhyme and a reason to everything the coaching staff does within this state and national program. So far, the East Orange boys set a U.S. No. 1 in the Sprint Medley Relay on January 3 with a time of 3:30.79 and are U.S. No. 1 in the 4x200 (1:28.76) and U.S. No. 2 in the 4x400 (3:22.68). Soon enough, they'll vie for accolades in the 4x400 and 4x55mH later in the season. 

"Sometimes we challenge each other," Wigfall says of his relationship with his coaches. "But we're able to unite for our boys and girls to ultimately provide better coaching to our students." 

Consider, though, what's transpired at East Orange over the last few years, too. The track program, which takes in students from the three public schools within the East Orange Campus district, has always had a strong history in short sprints like the 400m -- Wigfall himself  is a three-time NJSIAA Meet of Champions winner in the 400m and used to hold New Jersey's state record in the event -- but until recently the Jaguars have turned into a national power in the long hurdles and the shuttle hurdle relays.

A year ago, the boys squad won two national titles over the indoor season in the 4x55mH championships at New Balance Nationals Indoor and the 4x400. It set a national record in the shuttle hurdles relay in 28.62 seconds. The ensuing spring they followed with another title in the 4x400 relay and in the 4x110 shuttle hurdle championships at New Balance Nationals Outdoor. 

More than a handful of athletes are training to be on the team's national title winning relay squads. And it's not just Wigfall who trains them. Rolanda Bruce, the team's head girls coach, is the school's de facto "hurdles" swami. She's the one who turns sprint athletes into dominating hurdlers. There's also George Arrington, who focuses on the distances. 

This spring, they saw the graduation of Cory Poole, one of the top athletes in the class of 2017 in the 400mH. He signed with the University of Florida. 

Over a given week, Bruce, Wigfall and Arrington will each take particular athletes and coach them exclusively. Sometimes, Wigfall says, only they know best about a certain athlete once they get in that room.

That's when the pleas start. 

But alternates and backups on East Orange's relay teams understand what they must do to get on national-championship contending teams, too. 

"For our relays, we have way more than four people trying to step up," said Al-tariq Dunson, a senior who was part of the Jaguars 4x110mH championship team last spring. "Every time we do one last rep, you always want to be the fastest one coming to the l line to prove that you can be on that relay." 

Of course, much of East Orange Campus' history of success, especially on the girls side, can be attributed to former coaches Darren Hammond (boys) and Ronald McDonald (girls), who retired in 2016. That's when Wigfall, who graduated from the school in 2003 and went on to become a 16-time All-American at Division II Lincoln University (PA), stepped in and began to raise the level of the Jaguars' boys program. He was previously brought on as an assistant in 2013. 

Wigfall said he communicated with Bruce to figure out how East Orange could remain one of the best sprinting programs in the state, and possibly even nationally. 

"We talk every day," Wigfall said. "If we can find this balance, that's what we're always looking for. We may have six athletes for a relay and we decide on three, so we need to come to a decision on the fourth and see how it's going to play out." 

The process of coaching athletes separately and then placing them on relays is a strategy that Wigfall said has helped communication. 

"We have a clear understanding of each athlete's goal," Wigfall said. "We know each kid has a different story and no kid can be trained the same. So we train all of our kids as a unit, because it makes them ultimately reunite with one another once they get on those relays." 

The day before competition on Friday, Wigfall said, the team always practices handoffs with the relay selections. 

"Nothing strenuous, but we go over good handoffs, try to get some chemistry and try to understand what each teammate may bring," he said. 

After medaling in several events over the past several years, East Orange had a banner year in 2016-2017, taking home massive hardware and earning national recognition. 

But the Jaguars are adamant they're not done. Even after the graduation of Poole, who generated massive attention from a state and national scene, the team remains confident it can retain the luster it created a year ago. 

In fact, only Poole graduated from many of those championship relays in 2017. Seniors Akeem Lindo, Immyouri Etienne, and Ibrahim Fobay return. So does junior Kishaun Richardson. 

Many more are jockeying to get on the many relays in which East Orange Campus has become so powerful. 

Wigfall has heard from track fans around New Jersey that they don't believe East Orange Campus can hang on to their relevance with the absence of Poole. 

But he doesn't want to give those thoughts any credence. One day recently, he left a local barbershop after a colleague told Wigfall that "this is the end of East Orange. Cory isn't there. And Cory was the most heroic athlete you'll have for the next 10 to 15 years." 

Wigfall left the barbershop immediately and proceeded to text his athletes. 

"I told them, 'Whatever you're doing this summer, have your eyes on the prize and come back willing to work,'" he said. 

Many of the boys texted him back with one thought. 

"We know, coach. We're with you." 

In fact, many of them had already met that summer to discuss how they could continue to put East Orange Campus on the map in 2018. 

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Contact MileSplit National Content Producer Cory Mull at cory.mull@flosports.tv or on Twitter @bycorymull

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