Throwers Setting New Standards for Navy Women's Track Team
May 9, 2012
By Matt Muzza
Navy Sports Information
With three Patriot League titles in the last four years and the Class of 2012 sporting an 8-0 career record against Army in Star Meets, the Navy women's track and field team is in the midst of its best stretch in its 26-year program history.
In order to have that consistent level of team success, Navy head coach Carla Criste needs a deep roster that is capable of scoring in many different events across the board.
The team's brightest star is All-American miler Jess Palacio, who seemingly wins every race she enters, and the team is loaded with talent from the sprints and hurdles to the longer distance races and the jumping events.
But nestled far away from the track's finish line, where the collective eyes of track and field spectators usually focus, is a group certainly worth paying attention to.
Whether it's the far back corner of Wesley A. Brown Field House, the Ingram Track infield, or the throwing circle at Hospital Point, there is a very talented contingent of throwers launching the javelin, shot put, discus, hammer and weight throw to distances that have seldom been seen at the United States Naval Academy.
Assistant coach Steven 'Sarge' Sarigiannis oversees the Navy throwing events and has been an adept recruiter, teacher and mentor to the Midshipmen throwers. Now in his sixth year at Navy, Sarigiannis has recruited and coached all of the current throwers and has built the unit to its current level of success.
"Sarge is one of the most likeable and affable guys around," said Criste, who is in her 21st year at Navy. "He does a great job motivating the throwers and is constantly coming up with new drills and approaches. That whole group just exudes tenacity and they have a great 'esprit de corps.'
Sarigiannis is a 1999 graduate of UNC-Wilmington, where he was a three-time conference champion in the discus throw. Having arrived in Annapolis prior to the 2007 season, he has seen his share of throwers, and he knows he has something special with his current group.
"We've probably never had this much talent in the throwing events at one time," Sarigiannis said.
Only the top 48 ranked athletes in each event in the East Region qualify and the meet whittles down the field to the 12 athletes who will advance along with the West Region's top 12 to the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship.
Navy has sent at least one competitor to the NCAA's East Regional every year since 2003, but the team had never sent three athletes from the same area of discipline. That all changed in 2011 when Navy sent its trio of throwers to the regional meet.
Phelps had the best showing at Indiana, placing 29th in the hammer throw. Allam and Membreno, both just plebes at the time, placed 37th in their respective events: Allam in the discus and Membreno in the javelin.
The athletes' participation in the NCAA Regional capped off an impressive 2011 outdoor season for the throwing unit.
A few weeks prior to the regional, Phelps won the Patriot League title in both the shot put and the hammer throw, while Allam won the discus title with a new Patriot League Championship meet record of 165-7 (50.49m).
Navy just missed accomplishing a throwing event sweep, as Membreno was the runner-up in the javelin.
After the dominating performance at the Patriot League meet, Phelps (hammer), Allam (discus) and Membreno (javelin) earned All-East honors with top-eight finishes at the ECAC Outdoor Championship.
The success of the Navy throwers last season carried over to 2012.
At the Patriot League Outdoor Championship last weekend, Navy earned an impressive 46 points over the four throwing events en route to winning the team championship.
Sophomores Teronda Brown (Angleton, Texas) and Maressa Guynn (Uniontown, Pa.) joined with classmates Allam and Membreno and the senior team captain Phelps for nine top-six finishes in the four throwing events to earn important team points for Navy.
The throwing success of recent years has also been front-and-center at the always-important Army-Navy Star Meet. Over the last four dual meets against Army, Navy has won all 12 throwing events, with Phelps earning six first-place finishes.
The throwers' efforts have paid off this season with all five earning qualification to the upcoming ECAC Championships at Princeton.
Phelps has surpassed the minimum qualification standards in both the hammer and shot put, Brown qualified for the shot put and discus, Allam and Guynn are in for the discus as well and Membreno will compete in the javelin.
The 2012 NCAA East Regional will follow the ECAC Championship and currently both Allam (23rd in discus) and Phelps (46th in hammer) are in a position to qualify for a second straight year. Membreno, Brown and Guynn could also move in to the top 48 with a strong showing at the ECAC meet.
For Phelps, a return trip to the NCAA's East Regional, which would be held just days before her commissioning, would be well deserved after a highly successful track and field career at Navy. Phelps, elected captain by her teammates, is a leader that the four sophomores throwers, and the entire team, look up to.
"Amanda has been with me from the start, as she was in one of my first recruiting classes," Sarigiannis said of the future surface warfare officer. "She keeps everyone together and she's like the 'Mama Ox' of the throwing squad."
Phelps is a four-time Patriot League individual champion and a two-time runner-up at the league meet. She was named the Patriot League's Field-Athlete of the Meet after winning the shot put and the hammer titles in 2011.
Phelps will leave Navy ranked in the top three on the school's performance lists in the shot put (indoor and outdoor), the weight throw and the hammer throw.
"I'm sad I'm going to be leaving, but I am confident in the team and I know they are going to pave the way to even greater things in the future," Phelps said.
Phelps is turning over the reins of the throwing group to the capable hands of throwers like Allam, who standing at just 5-4, is the smallest of the group, but has proved that throwing is about more than just brute size.
Allam broke Navy's school discus record with her speed and technique, as well as on the strength of a number of mental intangibles.
"Lauren may be at a disadvantage physically, but she makes up for that with a determination to win," Sarigiannis said. "When we go to a meet, she is by far the smallest thrower there, but she always beats everybody anyway, so I call her the 'Giant Slayer.' She has more determination, confidence and an eagerness to win than any female that I have ever coached."
It was while attending Chesapeake High School that Allam stumbled into the discus event.
"I was cut from the soccer team during my sophomore year so I started doing cross country," Allam said. "After the season I wanted to stay with my teammates for track, but I couldn't really run or jump so I decided to try throwing.
"I started with the shot put and then during the outdoor season a coach saw me pick up a discus and said that I was holding it the right way even though I had never thrown it before. That led me to trying it out."
Allam was a quick learner in the discus and went on to win the Maryland state title in the event as a senior, throwing 150-1 (45.76m).
Under the tutelage of Sarigiannis at Navy, Allam has progressed to even greater heights, adding 15 feet to her personal record in the discus.
During her freshman season at Navy, Allam competed in the discus event nine times, and by season's end she owned nine of the top 10 discus marks in school history, including the school record of 165-7 (50.49m).
Allam set a conference record with five rookie of the week awards and was voted the Patriot League Championship Rookie of the Meet after winning the discus with her new championship record.
Allam had an outstanding freshman season and she points to the NCAA's East Regional as a key experience that she has been able to draw from in future competitions.
"That was the highest-level meet that I ever competed at," Allam said. "It was humbling to throw against everyone else at that meet who was better than me and had more experience than me.
"Being at the big meets have helped me with the mental challenges of throwing: things like calming yourself down and making sure you're in the right state of mind to compete."
Allam has used those experiences to maintain her success in 2012, winning the discus event in five of the seven meets she has entered, with runner-up finishes at the other two (Penn Relays and Patriot League Championship).
Her season-best mark to date is 164-9 (50.22m), which is just 10 inches shy of her own school record.
In addition to Allam, the talented Class of 2014 consists of Brown, Guynn and Membreno, providing Navy with a strong foundation in the throwing events for the next few years.
Brown also competes in the discus, weight throw and the hammer, but has had the most success in the shot put. She is the only current Midshipman to surpass 14 meters in the shot put and owns a personal record of 46-2 (14.07m).
"Teronda is the strongest one of the group and her muscles are solid as a rock," Phelps said. "She is very quiet, but she gets really intense at meets and she loves the competition and we feed off of her."
Guynn is a diverse thrower who competes in a wide range of events. Guynn is a consistent entry in the discus, hammer, javelin and weight throw and will even throw the shot put from time to time.
Guynn scored in both the discus and the hammer throw at the 2012 Patriot League Championship. She set a personal record in the discus with a third-place showing of 150-8 (45.93m), which qualified her for the upcoming ECAC Championship.
While Phelps, Allam, Brown and Guynn compete with the track and field team year-round, Membreno only comes out for the outdoor season, as she is a rare two-sport athlete at the Naval Academy.
A two-year starter on the women's basketball team, Membreno has helped Navy to two straight Patriot League titles and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
With the women's basketball team's postseason success extending its season to mid-March, Membreno doesn't get nearly the same kind of preseason track and field preparation as her javelin opponents.
"Alix has a natural athleticism and you can really see it when she throws the javelin," Phelps said. "She looks so peaceful and natural, but she is also explosive and powerful, which is why she can throw it so far. She's able to get her speed from playing basketball and she transfers that into the javelin."
Membreno was at the Naval Academy Preparatory School with Brown and Guynn in 2009-10 and the three have formed a strong bond from their three years together, and the throwing unit as a whole is very close and very supportive of each other.
With the bulk of Navy's talented throwers residing in the sophomore class, it is Sarigiannis as the coach, as well as Phelps as the team captain, who set the tone for the throwing unit with their leadership and passion.
"Coach Sarigiannis is such a great coach and you can just see that he is even more enthusiastic to coach than we are to throw." Membreno said. "I think that's pretty rare to find."
The throwers have a great team dynamic that is equal parts support and competition.
"We have a healthy competition and we like to push each other, like seeing who can put up the most in the weight room," Guynn said. "We are usually out at practice for a long time anyway, but if you see someone stay for an extra bag of throws after practice, then it will make you want to stay, too."
Track and field is often seen as an individual sport, but doubling or tripling at scored meets to garner maximum team points, cheering on your teammates as they compete or just having a competitive training partner at practice make the sport more team-oriented than what it gets credit for. The Navy throwers stand behind a team-based approach to make each other better.
"We all have that determination to push each other to work harder," Brown said. "We always want to see each other do the best we can."
"We all love our sport and we love competing and working hard," Phelps said. "We always support each other and that helps us perform better."
Evidence of the support paying off can be clearly seen in the Navy record books, and Allam is well aware of the benefits of teamwork.
"My teammates are just incredible and it's really inspiring to be around them," Allam said. "Their success has contributed to my success and I hope that my success has also contributed to theirs."