By Austin Ferguson
With two events to go, it became clear: Monmouth, the six-time defending Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) champions in women’s track and field, were not going to win its seventh in a row.
“Monmouth was always a team that showed up and competed,” Head Coach and MAAC Coach of the Year Bob Hamer said. “But as the first day wore on, especially after the weight throws, where our women did an outstanding job, that turned the tide for us and gave us some confidence going into the second day.”
Senior thrower Ronetta Hunter, who competed in the weight throw event on the first day, Feb. 22, pointed to weight throws as the moment she knew Monmouth was out of the running.
“I wasn’t really a ranked weight thrower,” Hunter said. “I was mostly [shot put] for the winter. I was really there in case we needed extra points.”
Fellow senior thrower Fidele Jules won the day one event, but she was joined by freshman Natya Glasco and Hunter with sixth and seventh-place finishes, securing 15 total points for the Broncs.
“When Monmouth saw that we were coming for fire… that’s when they went, ‘Oh, crap,’” Hunter said.
The only question remaining was who would make the final push to capture the crown, Quinnipiac or Rider?
“We knew going in that Quinnipiac was the favorite to win,” Hamer said. “I had it on my scoreboard that they were going to beat us.”
Headed into the second-to-last event, Quinnipiac held a slim advantage behind six first-place finishes and the numbers on Feb. 23 pointed in the Bobcats’ favor.
History, however, pointed toward the Broncs being able to come on top.
Though Rider’s women had only one championship win to their credit, the Broncs’ 2007 title was coupled with 17 second-place finishes since competing for the MAAC championship in 1997, most notably falling 3.5 points short of the title in 2005.
The weight was quite literally put on the shoulders of Hunter, who was set to compete in the shot put event. Not only were these throws going to be the last of her MAAC career, but they were undoubtedly the most important with Rider just 5.5 points behind Quinnipiac.
“Initially, things weren’t going well,” Hamer said about the preliminary round of shot put throws. “But [the throwers] knew what they needed to do.”
In the preliminary round of throws, Hunter was focused on making it to the finals. She put out her first shot.
It landed foul.
“That got into my head a little bit,” Hunter said. “I just couldn’t let it take complete control over me and my skill and my mindset. I let it go.”
Hunter’s second throw fared better, landing at 13.52 meters. Her third throw was her best, settling at 13.61 meters, good enough to make it to the finals.
“Going into the finals, I had people ahead of me and behind me [in the standings],” Hunter said. “A couple of girls behind me had good throws the second time around and they got ahead of me.”
Hunter’s first throw in the finals went for 13.41 meters, consistent with her preliminary throws, but not far enough to secure the finish she needed.
Sitting in fifth place, Hunter had to dig deep in order to get the points she needed to push to the top of the heap.
“I went away from the crowd, went away from my coaches and teammates, found my corner and just started to talk to myself,” Hunter said.
After talking herself up, Hunter went to the circle for her fifth throw. She launched it for 13.56 meters, which wasn’t enough to leapfrog over the throwers who had recently passed her.
With only one throw left for Hunter for the season and possibly her career, the Broncs’ championship aspirations were in the balance.
Before she could make her final throw, Assistant Coach Anthony SanFilippo pulled Hunter, Jules and Glasco to the side for a quick huddle.
“I remember [SanFilippo] telling us, ‘We need to find five points. Period,’ and I knew he wasn’t trying to put any pressure on us, but I zoned it out. We disbursed, I calmed myself and got myself in the zone.”
Hunter made her way to take her final shot. A large portion of both the men’s and women’s track and field team was roaring in support of her, though it was time for Hunter to focus.
“I am the queen of zoning everything out,” Hunter said. “The people, the noise. What I did hear, though, was [men’s senior thrower] Adam [Maid]. He and I were close when it comes to throwing shot. I heard him say ‘Stay back, stay close.”
Hunter heard Maid’s mantra as she stepped in the circle, making that her focus.
“Just staying back, staying close,” Hunter thought to herself. “Then I just popped the heck out of that thing.”
Once Hunter’s final throw had landed, the Armory Track fell quiet, waiting for a signal from the officials.
“I didn’t care which place I finished,” Hunter said. “I just wanted to get the points for our team.”
The officials made the signal. Hunter’s throw was over 14 meters. Hunter did enough to pass those ahead of her and her teammates roared in support. Hunter, however, knew she was not in the clear yet.
Manhattan’s Alexand Preckajlo was next in the circle, where she, like Hunter, threw for over 14 meters.
“I thought two Manhattan girls threw for 14 meters, so to me, I finished in third and that was six points, so that was OK for me,” Hunter said.
Once Hunter had a feeling that she had secured the points her team needed, she retreated back to the corner she found before her final shot.
“I just started crying,” Hunter said. “I was thinking, ‘Gosh, we did it.’”
Just as Hunter was getting a moment to herself, she was in for a bigger surprise. Her teammates and SanFilippo had chased toward her to break the news.
“That’s it,” SanFilippo began to tell Hunter. “You won.”
Hunter was in awe. All she could respond with was a resounding, “What?”
SanFilippo told Hunter, “You threw for 14.12 [meters]. The other girl (Preckajlo) only threw for 14.09.”
By just three centimeters, or just over an inch, Hunter edged out the rest of the field to take first place and 10 points from her final MAAC event.
Hunter and Rider’s win, alongside an eighth-place finish from senior Fidele Jules, added 11 points to the Broncs’ total to 146.5 points, which pushed Rider ahead by 2.5 points after Quinnipiac’s Mikah Maples finished sixth in the shot put event.
Once Hunter settled down, Hamer came to congratulate her on her performance.
“He high-fived me and told me, ‘I’m so proud of you, you really put us in the running for the title,’” Hunter said. “‘But we have to look at the 4×400 and see where we’re at.”
With Quinnipiac sitting at 144 points, a win in the 4×400 relay was the only option to provide a cushion for the Bobcats.
The Broncs couldn’t concern themselves with Quinnipiac’s finish. Rider had to finish in the top two to guarantee victory. Rider’s team of Sophia Castronovo, Farrah Miller, Mary Ilelaboye and Quinn Bethel were charged with the tall task of protecting the lead.
“We knew in our heads what we had to do,” Hamer said about the team’s goals headed to the final race. “But that wasn’t what we were trying to do.”
Hamer knew that aiming for second place was not going to do it with the MAAC championship in the Broncs’ fingertips.
“We were trying to win the race. If you try to do something, you won’t always do what you’re supposed to do,” Hamer said. “So we did what we always do: Go out and compete and try to win the race.”
Hunter recalled how close the race was until it got toward the final legs of the race.
“[Quinnipiac] just has amazing runners,” Hunter said. “At that point I knew we weren’t getting first, but I figured, let’s fight for second and see what happens.”
Quinnipiac’s group of Meaghan Scullin, Melissa Solomon, Caitlyn Halloran and Ahmetra Davies proved to be powerful as they finished first in 3 minutes and 50.13 seconds. Rider had one out to win: finish in second place.
“[Trying to win] was freeing for us,” Hamer said. “They knew that every point counted, every second mattered and everyone’s effort together was going to be the difference.”
Six seconds ahead of the six-time defending champions, the Broncs followed the Bobcats by just two seconds, finishing in 3 minutes and 52.45 seconds, a Rider record.
Following the end of the relay, the coaches came into a huddle to tally up and double-check the scores.
“I saw coach just started to jump up and down, then he came and gave me a big hug,” Hunter said. “He started to cry and he told me, ‘Kid, we won by half a point.’”
Quinnipiac finished with 154 points, Rider with 154.5. By just one half of one point, the Broncs took home their first MAAC championship in 13 years in the numerical equivalent of a photo finish.
“We knew going into that huddle that we had won the meet,” Hamer said. “Once the athletes started to take on to our cues, it became ‘Holy crap, we actually did win this thing!’”
Hunter’s first instinct after learning the news was to call her mother.
“Mom,” Hunter had started, crying. Her mother cut her off.
Her mother asked, “What happened Ronetta? What’s wrong? Don’t beat yourself up too much.”
“I’m not crying because of that,” Hunter responded. “I’m crying because we won! I’m crying because your girl finished in first place!”
Hunter’s mother was ecstatic.
“Oh, my gosh!” Hunter’s mother let out. “I was praying for this!”
Hamer was amazed by the circumstances in which Rider took home the MAAC trophy.
“You could nitpick through every point, they were all obviously important,” Hamer said. “There were so many things to set it up so that [Hunter] could have that cool moment.”
In the end, Hamer saw the ending of the MAAC championships as a prime example of why he and most other athletes play in the first place.
“This is what makes sports great,” Hamer said. “You don’t know how it’s going to end. When we dream, we don’t dream of the big moment and have it not work out… it’s like when I was a kid playing baseball, I dreamed of going up to the plate in the World Series and hitting that walk-off home run.”
The final memories of Hunter’s track and field career are sure to last, thanks to a miraculous comeback that she was at the center of.
“It was a night to remember,” Hunter said. “It’s a moment I will never forget.”