By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa men’s track team had just clinched its first Big Ten team title since 2011 when Joey Woody was overcome by emotion.
Iowa’s Director of Track took a couple deep breaths, patted his chest several times and then knelt down on the track with his head buried in his chest.
It was a private moment in a public setting that Woody will cherish forever.
He was proud of what his team had just accomplished in front of the home crowd, but sad that his close friend and mentor wasn’t there to share in the milestone moment.
Woody’s owes much of his success in track and field, both as a head coach and as a former star hurdler, to the influence of John Raffensperger, who passed away on April 22 at the age of 78.
“Man, it’s tough because he’s just been such an important part of my life and these kids, they showed up and got it done,” Woody said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He’s smiling down on us for sure. It was a tough battle and the guys really showed up.”
The Iowa women’s team also showed up and almost got it done, finishing in third place in the team standings.
“I was really proud of both of our teams,” Woody said. “The women got third and almost got second and had a great battle.”
Woody and Raffensperger had a unique and special bond that was formed largely due to their love of track and field.
Raffensperger helped turn Woody into a star hurdler as his legendary head coach at perenniel power Iowa City High School in the early 1990s, and Raffensperger also helped Woody build the Iowa track and field program into a Big Ten contender as a volunteer assistant.
Raffensperger worked as a volunteer assistant as recently as this past winter. He only stopped helping after having been diagnosed with pneumonia.
Woody honored Raffensperger by wearing a patch with the word "Raff" inscribed on it.
“I hadn’t cried up to this point through everything and this was the first time I just let it loose and just said this is obviously for him,” Woody said. “Just to honor him and everything he stood for and did for our program. I know he’s up above us looking down and smiling.
“I know he wanted to be here so bad, and that’s what he was fighting for. But he had the best seat in the house.”
Iowa was clinging to a 106-101 lead over Indiana heading into the final event, which was the 4x400 relay.
Iowa is ranked first in the Big Ten in that event, and third nationally, but it still took an incredible performance by senior Mar’yea Harris on the anchor leg to prevail.
Harris took the baton in second place by at least five feet, but he steadily made up ground and soared down the back stretch to victory.
“We needed the win to secure the team title and to be able to go get the win in front of the home crowd just means a lot,” said Harris, who also won the 400-meters. “And just to see how my teammates felt after I had crossed the finish line and got the win was just an amazing feeling to see them all happy.”
Senior Chris Douglas also had a key role in Sunday’s team title as he won the 400-meter hurdles.
Douglas received a congratulatory hug from Woody shortly after crossing the finish line. The victory was special for lots of reasons, including Woody’s background in that event.
Woody won a national title in the 400 hurdles as a senior at Northern Iowa in 1997.
“This is his event, I think the 400-meter hurdles is really special to him, so having one of his own Hawkeyes win really means a lot to him,” Douglas said.
A team needs both talent and depth, and has to rise to the occasion, in order to accomplish what the Iowa men’s track team did on Sunday.
It also helps to have the home crowd on your side, and that was certainly the case on Sunday.
But as Woody pointed out to the media afterwards, it still came down to his student-athletes getting the job done.
From star performers like Harris and Douglas to the less-heralded Cooper Koenig, Iowa's march to the team title was the result of multiple student-athletes stepping up.
Koenig, a West Branch native, earned one team point by finishing in eighth place in the long jump.
"Cooper Koenig had never scored a point in his life and he comes in here and scores and just does things," Woody said. "A guy from right down the street in West Branch. So I’m just very proud of every one of those guys. Those guys did it. I’m very proud of my coaching staff, too. We’ve got a phenomenal coaching staff and they gave us an opportunity to set this up and have done a great job with our athletes.
“But the athletes got it done. They stepped up and did it.”
Iowa now moves on the NCAA Championships with the men’s and women’s team both having reason to be confident.
The first round of the NCAA Championships will be held May 23-25 in Sacramento, Calif.
“We’ve just got to get more points and more firepower on the women’s side, but we’re going to have a heck of team next year returning,” Woody said. “But what’s also exciting is we’ve still got a great chance at the national championships to be one those top programs in the men and the women.
"We’ve still got a lot or work to do. But we’re going to celebrate. But I want the kids to be driven to do something special at the national championships.”