A great track meet often comes down to the 1,600-meter relay. This one did -- twice.
The final event lifted Washington University to the women's title and produced the rare first-place tie in the men's division between host North Central College and Wisconsin-LaCrosse at the NCAA Division III Indoor Track & Field Championships Saturday in Naperville.
"It's unreal, it's hard to put into words how badly we wanted this," said North Central junior Daniel Spaccapaniccia, who led off the Cardinals' relay.
"Grammy (coach Frank Gramarosso) came up to us before, we were waiting, and he said, 'If LaCrosse wins and we get third it's a tie for the win.' And we as a relay kind of looked at each other and said, 'All right, let's do this, let's go and let's run.' We gave our hearts out right there," said the Naperville Central graduate.
Gramarosso's motivated squad, ranked No. 6 before the meet, won its fifth indoor title and first since 2012.
"We're all glad he told it to us, I think he pushed us a lot harder," said relay anchor Peyton Piron, a sophomore out of Batavia. "It worked out perfectly, so that was unbelievable."
Entering the last event Wisconsin-Whitewater led the field with 30 points to North Central's 28, Wisconsin-Stevens Point's 27 and LaCrosse's 24. Neither Whitewater nor Stevens Points had an entry in the 1,600 relay final, their totals locked in.
LaCrosse led the Cardinals from start to finish in the second of two heats, gaining 10 points. Bumped to third by Mt. Union's time from the first heat, North Central's 6 points tied LaCrosse with 34.
"It's just kind of going at it as best we can and hoping for the best and letting the outcome take care of itself," said senior and St. Charles North product Zack Kirby, also on the relay with Ben Nordman. "That's exactly what happened today. I'm getting choked up just thinking about it."
Aurora University, behind Ryan Njegovan's winning shot put of 58 feet, 6 inches, finished in a sixth-place tie. Up-and-coming Benedictine University tied for 10th.
Rebecca Ridderhoff, a Washington University senior out of Downers Grove North, was on her eighth race spanning two days as she led off the Bears' 1,600 relay. She'd already earned All-America honors Saturday in the 60 hurdles, 200 dash and the 400 dash and wore kinesiology tape around her left knee to prove it.
The Bears needed third place or better to wrest the women's title from Ithaca. Ridderhoff's fast start led to a second-place finish, and the big trophy, 44 points to Ithaca's 41.25.
"It's a team thing, and it's amazing," Ridderhoff said. "Eight races. I'm beat. I'm going to sleep well tonight. Our coach (Jeff Stiles) always talks about grit, grit and guts, and that was kind of what it was today."
Erin Herrmann knows of grit and guts. Due to a stress reaction the Hope College senior from Wheaton Warrenville South hadn't run a 3,000-meter race since she ran a qualifying time on Dec. 2, limited to cross training until February.
"You can do as much cross training as you want but it's still not running," she said.
In her eighth national meet counting indoor and outdoor track and cross country, Herrmann moved from 17th and last place up to ninth, one slot off an All-America finish but better than her goal of 12th.
"Overall I'm content with how it went down, but everyone's their own worst critic," she said. "I'm always hard on myself, how I did. Considering the circumstances I'm happy with how it went."