The exchange happens three times during every 1,600-meter relay race, and it can make the split-second difference between a team walking off the track a state champion or going home with nothing more than a runner-up finish.
It can send athletes crashing to the asphalt in a tangled mess or it could push them ahead of a sloppier team. The baton could slip with the slightest err and be sent clanging to the ground, taking with it the team's hopes of winning, or it could exchange hands smoothly and give the final runner a leg up.
Laurel High School track coach Kennon Broadhurst said his 1,600 relay team's exchanges made the .12 seconds of difference that separated the Spartans from Henry A. Wise in the Maryland 4A indoor track championships in February. The exchanges also accounted for the .06 seconds that kept Laurel ahead of Christian Brothers High School (N.J.) for the fourth-best time in the nation at the New Balance Indoor Nationals.
Laurel notched a state-leading time of 3 minutes, 15.65 seconds at the Waldorf Classic on April 14, shattering their own meet record by seven seconds. It was a time that caught even Broadhurst by surprise.
“No, I did not expect that at all,” he said with a laugh. “I thought 3:17, 3:18 at best. It took me by total surprise.”
The Spartans are “popped off” by Joel Roberson who passes the baton to either Christian White or Jonte Miles, and the team is anchored by Joel's twin brother Jovan.
The anchor is older by five minutes and doesn't resemble his younger brother too much aside from the fact that they can both move faster around a track than most athletes in the state of Maryland.
“Right before the race we all come together and when I pop off I know I'm running for the team,” Joel said. “I love getting out there.”
Joel's splits typically come in below 50 seconds. White, whose first run of the outdoor season came at the Waldorf Classic often gets himself in trouble by being too fast, Broadhurst said. At the Virginia Tech Invitational this past indoor season, White took the baton from Miles nearly even with Largo. After 100 meters into his leg the Largo runner was well out of sight, giving White some room to relax and slow up.
“Once he got in front he cruised, he didn't push it,” Broadhurst said. “But if we're ever out of a race, he's always able to push us back in. I try to put them in situations that will force them to run and push themselves faster.”
After White it's on Jovan to close. He loves the pressure that comes with the finishing leg, the precious value of the final exchange of the baton, the adrenaline surge of holding on to a lead with runners on either side of him breathing down his neck.
“I like that pressure,” he said. “It makes me like, ‘OK, I gotta move, I gotta get going.'”
As for the state championship he secured by .12 seconds by holding off Wise's Stuart Higginbotham, Roberson was never worried.
“I wasn't going to let him beat me,” he said. “I didn't even know he was behind me.”
Joel, maybe just being a typical brother, was not quite as confident in Jovan.
“He was out of shape,” Joel said jokingly of Jovan. “He just wasn't there yet, he was still getting into the rhythm of things. My heart dropped when he finished and all that stress released.”
In shape or out of shape, he had just enough to get them the coveted state crown.
The Spartans met Wise again several weeks later at North Point High School for the Waldorf Classic, but the finish there was not as hair-raising as the one at the state championships. Jovan crossed the finish line two seconds before second-place Suitland and nearly three seconds before the Wise.
Laurel's time broke a school record that Joel helped set in 2010 by two seconds, and it lowered the top time in the state this season by seven seconds. It came with the team having only put in a week's worth of speed work and with White running his first race of the outdoor season after recovering from a strained hamstring.
“We're far from hitting our peak right now,” Broadhurst said.
The four Laurel sprinters will be traveling to Philadelphia this weekend for the Penn Relays, where they will face a field of international competition in a meet where two-second victories are all but unheard of. The chance for a victory will likely come down to the hundredths of seconds that can be made up or lost with the simple exchange of the baton — the importance of which Jovan cannot stress enough.
“If you have a faster guy next to you, you have to be able to get out ahead of him,” he said. “Or you are going to lose.”