When Matthew Payamps crossed the finish line to bring home a victory in the distance medley relay Championship of America at the 125th running of the Penn Relays on April 27, it served as both history and tribute.
The 10 minute, 10.23 second victory, accomplished along with Brendan Dearie, Michael Barbaro-Barnett, and Matt Reda, marked the first time St. Anthony’s had won the event at the prestigious outdoor meet since 1978. Bob Higgins, the St. Anthony’s assistant coach who died of brain cancer in February, ran on that team.
“It meant a lot to us,” said Dearie, whose father, Tim, is St. Anthony’s coach and was Higgins’ best friend. “It just made it that much more special when we won that he was on the last relay that [St. Anthony’s] won [at Penn]…As the assistant coach, he was sometimes in the background, but he was always there for all of us. Whenever we had a bad race, he was the one that tried to calm us down.”
“I know that that was one of [Higgins’] favorite meets to go to and watch,” Payamps said. “He knew how important that race is. Just to be able to win it for him was amazing.”
St. Anthony’s was the first Long Island team to win the DMR Championship of America at Penn since Northport in 2003, a team that Tim was also the coach of. He is now the only American coach to win two Championship of America relays with two different schools, Dearie said.
Last year, Payamps, Dearie, and Barbaro-Barnett were on the team that finished second to New Jersey Hopewell Valley in the same event, a loss that stuck with the group through the entire year. The day after that loss, Payamps noticed a program being handed out at the meet with a picture of the finish on the front cover.
There St. Anthony’s was, looking up at the winner. Second place is not a position that the proud distance program is used to, and it certainly wasn’t a place that Payamps wanted them to stay. When he returned home, Payamps taped the picture on the ceiling above his bed for motivation.
“I was just like, ‘there’s going to be thousands of people seeing me losing and me behind this guy,’ ” Payamps said. “At that point in the season, that was all I really wanted. I wanted to bring home a [championship] that season. I don’t even know how to describe myself at that point, but I was just so happy to bring home the [championship] this year.”
The picture remained above Payamps’ bed all summer, fall, and winter, staring at him as he navigated through a very successful cross country season and an indoor track campaign that featured a state championship in the 1,600 meters. After the victory at Penn, Payamps finally took the picture down.
“Every year, we go into Penn knowing it’s the most competitive race in America,” Payamps said. “Coach Dearie knows that and he prepares us well to be able to perform at our best ability at Penn. Every year, we want to perform well. Especially after last year, coming in second in this big race, we were really focused on being able to win this year.”
Payamps ran his 1,600-meter leg in 4:13.65. He received the batten in second place from Reda, who ran the 800-meter leg in 1:58.28.
“I got the stick in a pack of three, and a little bit in front was a pack of two,” Reda said. “Before the race, I knew that our top competition was probably going to be Bronxville. So, I needed to have my eyes set on them and get as close to them as possible.”
Bronxville finished second in 10:13.05 after the Georgetown-bound Payamps bested Stanford-bound Matt Rizzo on the anchor leg.
“With 100 [meters] to go I just gave it my all and was able to bring it home,” Payamps said.
When they got home, the magnitude of the moment hit all of them.
“It’s really special because that team in 1978 had [Olympian] John Gregorek and, obviously, Coach Higgins,” said Barbaro-Barnett, who has been running this year through small fractures in his feet. “They were both really great. For us to be that next team at that same level really means a lot. Being able to bring home that win was a great honor for Coach Higgins and that team.”