Egg Harbor Township boys are best in U.S. in Penn Relays 4x800 Championship of America

Brian Merriman of Rancocas Valley ran the anchor leg as his team won the High School Boys 4x400m for South Jersey Large School at the Penn Relays on April 29, 2017 at Franklin Field.

At the Penn Relays, it's not unusual for teams from Jamaica to set the standard.

With that as the backdrop, Egg Harbor Township senior Eric Barnes knew he was in good company as he came down the final stretch of the boys' 4x800 Championship of America and only Jamaican teams were ahead of him.

"It was so cool," said Barnes, who will compete at Rutgers. "Coming around the last 200 meters, hearing the Jamaican crowd yelling and screaming, I just thought if I could stay with Jamaica I'd run a fast time."

Barnes and Co. finished fifth overall in 7 minutes, 47.13 seconds but were the top finishers from the United States.

Twins Robert (1:57.04) and Alex Dessoye (1:56.04) started the race, with Aidin Hendriks (1:57.30) and Barnes (1:56.77) finishing the race strong.

Jamaica's St. Elizabeth Tech took first place in 7:33.27.

"It is one of the coolest experiences of your high school, maybe even college, career," Barnes said. "We won nationals in indoor, so coming in we had high expectations. But winning this, it's definitely right up there next to nationals. It's definitely a cool experience."

Rancocas Valley senior Brian Merriman comes from quality track stock, but his journey to the Penn Relays began with a nudge from a friend.

"Our second leg, Sam Keleekai, told me I should come out for track because he knew I was fast," said Merriman, whose father, Darryl, ran the hurdles at Willingboro before also competing at Rutgers. "He told me just to give it a shot, and I fell in love with the sport."

How did Keleekai even know Merriman was fast?

"From gym class pretty much," Merriman said, laughing.

On Saturday afternoon, Merriman needed all the speed he could muster to help the Red Devils take first in the boys' 4x400 South Jersey large schools finale.

With rival Pennsauken in pursuit down the final stretch, Merriman could hear the crowd buzz but didn't know how close Pennsauken's Martin Booker Jr. had gotten.

"I knew my team put me in a good position giving it to me in first, so I knew I had to hold the lead," Merriman said. "I knew Pennsauken was right behind me, and their anchor runs really well. So I knew I had to push myself to a place I've never been before."

He added, "It's definitely kind of scary because you don't know how close he is, if he's coming in faster than you are or if his kick is better. It kind of caught me off guard a little bit."

After Merriman motored to victory, he was asked to reflect upon how far he had come.

"It makes me feel great," said Merriman, who hasn't picked a college yet but has been in touch with La Salle and Rutgers. "Just starting from gym class to running in front of thousands of people, it feels amazing."

Haddonfield took first place in the South Jersey small school 4x400 relay in 3:21.51. The team consisted of Zachariah Murray (50.60), Derek Gess (50.58), Spencer Flores (51.62) and Luke Colehower (48.72).

Camden (3:25.04) finished second and was manned by JaJuan Hudson (52.90), H'aafiz Walker (51.83), Hakeem Evans (50.85) and Damon Rice (49.48).

Winslow Township took second in the girls' Tri-State 4x100 in 47.14 second. Tionna Tobias, Flora Ahiarakwe, Iyianna Williams and Shakira Dancy ran for the Eagles.

The team of Rob Hawkins (49.52), Keleekai (48.68), Vincent Brown (50.24) and Merriman (47.91) helped Rancocas Valley finished second in the boys' 4x400 Philadelphia Area finale in 3:16.33, just behind first-place Howard Tech's 3:16.32.

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