Loyola's school-record 4x100 relay team. Left to right: Lee Duncan,… (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles…)
For those who run relays in track and field, passing the baton can be scarier than a scene from "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
Just ask sprinter Morgan Simon of Los Angeles Loyola High.
He remembers suddenly dreaming about dropping the baton.
"I looked around frantically," he said.
So when the passing of the baton comes close to perfection, it's time to celebrate, and that's what Loyola's 400-meter relay team did after winning the Mission League championship last week in a school-record 40.89 seconds, tops in the state this season.
Lee Duncan ran the first leg, then handed the baton to Nico Evans, who gave it to Simon, who handed it to Mekai Sheffie.
And you want to know what's the only thing scarier for a high school track runner than dropping the baton? It's trying to hold off defending state 100-meter champion Khalfani Muhammad of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in the anchor leg.
That's what Sheffie faced.
"I always hear him coming," Sheffie said. "I know he's there."
Loyola was founded in 1865, the last year of Abraham Lincoln's presidency. One coach joked that the athletes were probably running barefoot on grass back then.
The previous relay record was established in 1998, one of the oldest records in the Loyola track and field program.
"It means a lot, having worked hard all season, and I'm happy to see it pay off," said Simon, who's headed to UCLA in the fall.
There's no doubt speed is the main requirement for setting a 400-relay record, and three of the four Cubs runners ran faster than 10.98 seconds in the 100 final. But the baton passes are really important too.
The runner waiting for the baton needs to begin to accelerate right on cue and the runner bringing the baton can't be slowing down. There's a 20-meter passing zone, and if the baton isn't transferred within the zone, disqualification happens.
"It's a little bit harder than it looks," Simon said. "Everything has to be precise. The handoff, the time you leave and getting out as fast as you can."
Loyola Coach Mike Porterfield has his athletes handing off in an unorthodox way. Usually, the outgoing runner has his palms up and the incoming runner gives an overhand pass. But Loyola has its outgoing runner put his palm down and the incoming runner gives the baton in an underhand sweep.
"I don't think it interrupts the running mechanics as much," Porterfield said. "You can sit with a group of coaches and argue it all day."
What's certain is that those four Loyola runners ran the relay of their lives.
"I couldn't do it without my three boys," Duncan said. "We work together, we run together, we trust together."
Of course, there are still big races ahead. The Southern Section Division 2 prelims are Saturday at Moorpark High, followed by the Southern Section finals May 18 at Mt. San Antonio College, the Masters Meet on May 24 at Cerritos College and the state championships on May 31-June 1 in Clovis.
Their coach is seeking perfection in their baton passes.
"They can always be better," Porterfield said.