Classical coach/athletic director Bob Palazzo
Forty-one high schools and close to 450 track and field athletes competed at the annual Classical Classic this past weekend.
The scene on Saturday at historic Conley Stadium was unlike the original version of the meet that was formed four-decades ago by late legendary Classical High head coach and weight-throwing guru Al Morro. Back in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, runners and jumpers would participate elsewhere.
Some amazing records were set during that time, some that still stand today, but it wasn't by those competing on the track oval or in the jumping pits.
"It was strictly a throwers' meet," recalls Classical coach and athletic director Bob Palazzo, a star weight-thrower for Central in the early '80s. "It was just the four throwing events (hammer, discus, javelin, shot put). I threw in that meet myself in 1983, 1984 as a high-schooler,"
The transformation to its current status as a high-quality, state-meet qualifier for boys, one that several high schools in R.I. circle on their calendars each year, didn't begin until nearly 20 years after the birth of the meet when Palazzo was hired as the AD of Classical.
"When I took over the job back in 1990, one of the questions I asked coach Morro is I think we need to make a move and make it a qualifier because they were searching for qualifying meets, things were certainly starting to develop with the schedule," he said. "I will never forget. I was on probation and had gone before the Principal's Committee in 1991-92. I was on probation that first year. They only allowed me to have 10 or 11 teams in the meet. They were interested to see how the meet would run and if we could run the meet. It was called a divisional qualifier. I put Classical Classic at the end of that title. Then it just took off and became a full-blown qualifier (in 1993). It's been a full meet since then."
To say that the meet has flourished over the last decade would be an understatement to the highest degree. For an all-boys' state qualifier, the Classical Classic is one of the biggest meets in the state and this year's total ranks among its best.
And check out some of the quality performances that took place throughout the afternoon on Saturday where athletes had to contend with some often windy and rainy conditions.
Barrington senior Charlie Ianota, the state's leading hammer thrower and No. 2 nationwide, unleashed his apparatus a personal-best distance of 233 feet, 7 inches. That's a toss that was less than eight feet shy of former Bishop Hendricken great and state-record holder Jacob Freeman's meet record of 241-02 (1999).
Westerly senior Joe Colao tossed the discus a distance of 161-02, nearly 11 feet further than his closest pursuer. Other No. 1 times and distances at the state level - there were seven for the day - were achieved by Cumberland senior Trevor Crawley in the 1,500-meter run (PB, 4 minutes, 4.3 seconds), Classical junior Abdul-lateff Orulebaja in the triple jump (42-9) and Mount Pleasant junior John Bropah in the 110 hurdles (15.0). Hendricken's 4x100 (43.4) and Barrington's 4x800 (8:15.4) relays also sit atop the list.
Palazzo admits it wasn't always easy to get the numbers when the Classical Classic turned into a track and field meet.
"We struggled through the early years," he said. "Track was fading fast - a lot of the better runners didn't want to come. There was the Toll Gate meet, the Titan Invitational. (Head coach) Norm (Bouthiller) and I battled for a number of years on who was getting the most athletes. It took on a different face back then because we were only getting half the state for like a five- to six-year stretch. It became more of a development meet. It was a qualifier but there was a lot of youth in that meet."
Palazzo started to witness an increase in the growth of the meet by the turn of the century. Some cosmetic work helped in the process. Back in the 1990s, athletes ran on a track that was similar to the surface of a roadway.
"The issue with a lot of running coaches is the track was terrible," Palazzo said. "We fixed that and it was kind of no problem. We got everybody back and made it a large- and small-school meet to try and keep the young kids involved. This time of year we kind of lose them. It's hard. There is not a lot out there. It's not anybody's fault, it's just the month of May and the school schedule. It's just a very hectic time. I like to think of it as a combination of development and keeping the young kids involved and a good qualifying meet."
While it is a track and field meet, it still holds a special place in the hearts of countless weightmen.
"A lot of people like the meet, especially the throwers," Palazzo said. "Some of the records (from the early years) still exist as meet records; Mike DeQuattro in the shot, Alan Baginski in the discus. The javelin record has since been broken because they changed the weight of the javelin and the hammer throw record was broken by Freeman."
In case you're wondering: Baginski, an ex-Classical standout in the late 1970s and Maryland All-American, threw the discus 194 feet. He still holds the state record of 198-7, set in 1979. DeQuattro, who starred for Barrington, heaved the shot a distance of 59 feet. That's three-feet short of the 62-1 state mark of La Salle's Len Rao in 1970.