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Labine, Johnnie's 4x100, forced to wait on national title defense

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Brady Labine, a 2017 DLHS graduate, figured out where he needed to be in the lineup during his freshman indoor college season and ended up placing 12th in the Div. III 4x100 nationals as a freshman for St. John's. Robert Williams / Tribune

Of all the area college athletes affected by COVID-19 this spring season, former Laker Brady Labine may have suffered the biggest drop from adrenaline high to virus low after losing the opportunity to defend the Division III 4x100 relay national championship with his teammates.

Senior Drew Schoenbauer (New Prague, Minn.) and sophomores Nick Gannon (St. Paul, Minn./Hill-Murray), Labine (Detroit Lakes, Minn.) and Ryan Miller (Maple Grove, Minn./Totino-Grace) raced to the finish line with Miller making an incredible sprint to win the title in 2019.

The Johnnies were in the pack in fifth place upon Labine’s exchange to Miller who bolted to second place, caught and passed John Carroll's Hayden Snow at the tape win by 0.05 seconds.

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“After I handed him the baton my angle was so bad I thought there was no way in heck Ryan can catch this guy,” said Labine. “I could tell he blew past everyone else but I did not think he could beat Hayden Snow. From my perspective, it didn’t look close. I was so bummed; we were almost national champs.

“Then I’m watching the scoreboard and the times start popping up and I see Drew screaming and sprinting across the track and I said, ‘no way.’ I’m halfway across the field when I see St. John’s pop up number one. I’ll never forget the moment. It’s surreal. Sometimes I wake up and watch the race in my head.”

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St. John's Brady Labine, right, hands off to Ryan Miller at the Bolstorff Twilight Thursday, April 25, 2019 in St. Paul. Labine won the 400m hurdles, ran the opening leg of the first place 4x100 relay and anchored the winning 4x400 team. St. John's Athletics

The way the team ran the race was typical of how they had found success over two seasons.

“That’s how all of our races always look, even if it’s a for-sure win for our team,” said Labine. “It comes down to that last handoff. That’s the thing with the 4x1. Nothing is guaranteed. You can have the fastest runners in the nation but if they can’t get the baton to each other it doesn’t matter.”

There is no margin of error in such a fast race.

“One bad handoff puts you out of the race,” he said.

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There is a science to putting together a winning 4x100 team and that is mostly personality with this foursome.

“We have four different dynamics on our relay in how we treat races,” said Labine. “Nick, our lead runner is always the ‘let’s go boys!’ He’s the horse ready to be let out of the cage.

"Ryan, our anchor, gets really nervous before all of his races. You have to talk him down; ‘Ryan, you just have to run.’ Drew and I are pretty mellow. We reel back the wild horse and keep Ryan focused.”

The team also needs the right guys, physically, in the right spots.

“Because Drew and Ryan are both longer and taller guys, you want your shorter guys to usually be on the curves (first and third),” Labine said. “What you run usually comes down to your personality. Some people are just better running on the curves some are better on the straightaway. This order worked for us and our coach just said it’s a no-brainer. It just kind of clicked.”

That order has its own set of dynamics.

“Handoffs are important,” Labine said. “The team has a running joke that I have to hand off to Ryan because nobody else can get him the baton. He’s really cautious when he gets the baton. Normally you want to space it out so they can get to full speed as they’re getting the baton. We figured out the day before the national meet to move us really close together and get the baton to him early and just let him run.”

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Brady Labine poses with his father Mike and mother Brenda at the D-III National track and field championships in Geneva, Ohio. Labine captured a national championship running the third leg of the St. John's 4x100m relay team. Twitter / @labine_mike

A wild race just to qualify

The team flew to California on Easter weekend for a big meet against tough competition looking to run a needed nationals qualifying time but that plan was nullified quickly by a baton drop on the first handoff.

“We didn’t even get to see how we could do against these big teams at a huge meet,” Labine said. “It was kind of a bummer and we just kept running the relay but couldn’t get our time to qualify for nationals.”

The 4x1 team captured the MIAC championship, but nationals qualifying is by time (top 16 relays).

“It was funny because we had to go to a last chance meet to qualify and we knew we could,” Labine said. “We were there last year.”

In 2018, the foursome faced the same dilemma needing to run one last race to get into nationals. The team qualified in La Crosse, Wisconsin and placed 12th in their first nationals appearance on the same track.

That option was on the table. There were two meets on back-to-back days available in Boston or one last chance at Wisconsin-LaCrosse.

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The team had to make a decision.

“Our coach asked, ‘how many shots do you need to qualify?’” said Labine.

“We only need one shot,” said Labine. “Why fly all the way to Boston for crappy weather? The Wisconsin meet ended up being beautiful too. We all decided the same thing separately. We didn’t talk about it amongst ourselves. It just kind of happened.”

The team returned to LaCrosse confident and ready to perform and qualified.

“I don’t think we’ve ever looked more comfortable than showing up at that last chance meet,” he said. “It was our third time running on that track, conditions were beautiful. It was laser focus from all of us. We showed up and we had a mission. Just comfort was what that day felt like. Our handoffs weren’t amazing but I think we all ran really well.”

Which led to Miller’s future sprint for the win at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio and St. John’s sixth national title in an event at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships.

Labine and his teammates broke a 17-year-old MIAC record set by Gustavus in 2002.

Miller broke his own MIAC record in the 100-meter dash with a national runner-up time of 00:10.22.

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The team was flying high coming back to Minnesota.

“After we came back from nationals last year, my biggest thing was holy crap, we’ve got a whole ’nother year to do that again,” said Labine. “That’s probably the best and most focused I’ve been in my training in a long time.”

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Brady Labine had only run hurdles once in his career, as an eighth-grader, before finding the groove in the 400 at college. Jennifer McNelly / Saint John's University

What a difference a year makes

For Labine it started just after New Year’s 2020.

“Before we broke for holiday break I was excited for this season; I feel good, where I should be,” he said. “I came back to school and the day before I started classes I had a fever and was super sick,” Labine said.

He was diagnosed with mono that week, missed a month of practice before missing the entire indoors season.

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“I felt slow and weak, was doing some sprinting and trying to get some strength back and work the fast twitch muscles again” he said. “I felt like I could be ready by May.”

With three of the four members returning from the national championship team as juniors, Labine had a lot to look forward to in the outdoors season.

“That was the cool thing, we graduated one person and the rest of us were sophomores,” he said. “I just had to get to May.”

Labine was also a resident advisor on campus this year and had paid more attention to what was going on with COVID-19.

“With March Madness, they were pretty clear about how they were going with national tournaments,” he said.

His teammates were at practice day of the indoors national meet when the season cancellation came after an announcement it would continue without fans and only family members. Hours later it was all done.

“That was the weirdest thing,” said Labine. “They were already there and it went from we’re going to do this with no fans to it’s off in two hours. For me, sitting at home it was frustrating.”

The writing was on the wall for the outdoors season.

“I struggled initially when the season was canceled,” Labine said. “I wasn’t consistent with my practicing. I was just kind of sad. I felt kind of removed. We went from national champions to now I’m sitting on my couch.”

Labine talked it out with other track runners and also former Laker Molly Lyngaas , who was in the same boat missing a chance at nationals in gymnastics.

“I reached out to Molly,” said Labine. “She and I talked because we were both pretty down. I reached out to other track guys and my coach and that’s what really helped. It wasn’t just how is your training going, it was how are you doing, how is class? The biggest thing is moving forward and that’s where I’ve been focused.”

Labine had to put aside the goal of not just returning with the 4x1, but making nationals in the 400 hurdles.

Last year, Labine was 27th in the national rankings, seven spots away from a qualifying time.

“It was definitely in reach with another year of work,” he said.

From DL to Collegeville and back

Labine is the DLHS school record holder in the 400-meters and was a standout pole vaulter along with sprints and relays. He left Detroit Lakes a multi-event performer and started that way initially at St. John’s, but that lasted one indoors season.

“It didn’t click,” he said. “All my work is hurdles and 400s.”

It took a while to figure out where he wanted to specialize.

“My freshman season was a lot of realizing where you’re at and finding an event,” he said. “I came in maybe wanting to pole vault and I want to run. Those two don’t mix. I kind of had my foot in too many doors and that led me to do the multi.”

While he was strong in sprints and dashes, Labine had only hurdled once as an eighth grader at section and state True Team.

“At the conference meet, I was doing a lot of watching our 4x2 and 4x4 that meet and that’s when it hit me that I was not doing what I should be doing,” Labine said. “My specialty lies on the track and in the longer sprints. I knew that is where my strength lies and watching that, it really hit home. I was upset at myself for not realizing that sooner. It wasn’t until the outdoor conference meet where I did 400 hurdles and was on the 4x1 and the 4x4. This is what I’m meant to do. How can I help my team?”

With the three national champions back for 2021, all seniors, the big question will be finding a fourth.

“All three of us are back and we have a few guys we’re looking at that could be the replacement, but until you put them in the 4x1 you don’t know,” said Labine.

The Johnnies are in a good position for the coming season.

“We don’t really lose a lot this year,” Labine said. “The difference between now and next year is you don’t know what your opponent is doing. If he’s training and you’re not we’ll see.”

Labine is currently working out at home here in DL and completing his junior academic year as a music education major.

Robert Williams has been a sports editor for Forum Communications in Perham and Detroit Lakes since 2011.
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