Batavia brotherhood leads the charge in record-breaking track season


Photo courtesy of Damien Rodriguez

Knanishu (left) and Rodriguez (right) both broke records at the Brian Clay Invitational.

Despite being the current track and field distance coach at Loyola University, Gavin Kennedy’s name was immortalized in the DePaul record books for nearly two decades. While a member of the men’s outdoor track and field team in 2005, Kennedy ran a school record time in the 1500-meter which had gone unbeaten ever since.

However, at the April 15 Brian Clay Invitational in Azusa, California, a pair of new marks at the 1500-meter distance were written into DePaul history. 

Kennedy’s final result of 3:48.23 over the 3.75-lap distance was bested twice in the same night by junior Damian Rodriguez and fifth-year senior Shane Knanishu, who finished in 3:46.38 and 3:47.49, respectively. 

Although in separate heats for their record-setting performances, the pair have had extensive experience racing together over the years. Prior to running cross country and track for DePaul, Rodriguez and Knanishu both attended Batavia High School in suburban Chicago, where they formed a competitive bond that has transitioned into their collegiate careers. 

“It’s special being able to train with [Shane] for so long. Going in, I already had two years with him in high school, and now coming to [DePaul] I’ve had three more years with him. It’s like a friendly competition,” Rodriguez said.

Knanishu was first to break Kennedy’s long-standing record under the lights at Azusa’s Cougar Athletic Stadium. A lower seed time as a result of his 3:48-high personal record slotted him in an “elite” heat that featured some of the strongest competition in the country including Cooper Teare, an American distance standout from Nike’s Bowerman Track Club.

“I had it circled on the calendar for a while. It’s a good place to get the regional qualifier. You go to California and race against great competition from all over, especially in the distance events,” Knanishu said. “Those are the top guys in the country, and being at the same meet and seeing they’re only a few heats ahead of me is really motivating.”

Knanishu took the lead right from the gun, separating himself from the rest of the pack by a wide margin and putting himself in position to hit a regional mark of around 3:44 over 1500 meters,which converts to about four minutes for a full mile. 

“I wasn’t expecting to have any trouble hitting the record coming into this season,” Knanishu said. “I thought if I take the race and go for it by myself, I’ll be able to get a really solid time. But I fell off a bit in the end, and I need to do a better job at competing within the pack. But I think it was a good experience, and a good reminder of how you can’t get to those goals without that type of competition right there with you the whole time.”

Although short of what he wanted, Knanishu’s finishing time of 3:47.49 was still enough to write himself into Blue Demon program history, and he expects to make significant jumps over the next month of outdoor competition.

Just over two hours later at 11:05 p.m. Pacific Time, Rodriguez toed the line for his shot at the 1500-meter regional mark. Since he has less collegiate experience in the race, Rodriguez was seeded in the “open” heats. Although they still feature premier competition capable of hitting times just as fast as the “elite” heats, he says this placement lit a fire under him that carried him through the race.

“I think it put kind of a chip on my shoulder just because I hadn’t really had a good 1500 time, but I finally got my mile time down indoors which helped me with my seeding time,” Rodriguez said. “I just feel like this was a race for me to get out there and attack the time I want, which is what I was able to do. And it just sets me up for the future to be able to get into some more elite races and hopefully improve my time.”

After winning his heat and crossing the line in a final result of 3:46.38, Rodriguez became the 24th individual performance to set a school record mark across all DePaul distance programs since Jan. 22, 2022. 

The night before Rodriguez and Knanishu raced at Brian Clay, senior Olivia Borowiak knocked down her existing 5000-meter record yet again at the Mt. Sac Relays in Walnut, California. 

Just a week prior, the men’s 5000-meter record that had been standing since 1984 went down twice in the same heat at the hands of graduate seniors Dominic Bruce and Gavin Glaza while racing at the University of Illinois on April 8. 

For head distance coach Geoff Wayton, these successes represent just a fraction of the hard work his athletes have been quietly putting in day in and day out.

“They’re earnest, sincere hard workers and they’re blue collar. You have to be,” Wayton said. “You have to be gritty and you have to be a tough racer. They’re learning all these attributes and each of them are putting all the pieces together to be really good runners. It’s just fun to be around kids who buy in and want to get better.”

Wayton joined the DePaul cross country programs, as well as the track and field distance programs, in December 2021 after a recommendation from longtime friend and DePaul throws coach Brandon Murer. 

Wayton says he knew immediately that jumping on the opportunity to coach in Chicago was the right choice, and that being able to coach athletes of this caliber is an opportunity he does not take lightly.

“In this position you’re always trying to figure out what made the athletes confident before you got here, and what you can do to continue the progression forward. And it’s nice to see people catch fire, and start to see themselves and believe in themselves in a different way than before,” Wayton said. 

Wayton cited junior Meghan Dieball as one of the best examples of taking a heightened belief in their training programs. During the 2023 indoor season, Dieball dropped over 30 seconds in the mile and became the first women’s miler in DePaul history to score at the Big East indoor conference meet.

“My goal for all my student athletes is to get to the point where we score points, and put points on the board for the team,” Wayton said. “That’s the biggest thing we have to accomplish as a program. And when I’m writing training, it’s about putting all of them into a position where they can accomplish that.” 

Coming back with a pair of school record times under their belts, Rodriguez and Knanishu hope to add points of their own to the team scores at the upcoming Big East outdoor conference meet at Villanova next month in one of the toughest distance conferences in the country. 

With similar enough personal records to slot them in the same heats moving forward, the pair look forward to increased competitive spirit and pushing each other towards even faster times.

“A lot of our races now we’ll be in it together and it’ll be back and forth,” Rodriguez said. “And I think we can see ourselves breaking that [1500-meter] record left and right, battling with each other to see who can come out on top.”

Knanishu added that they’re proud to have come from a place like Batavia, and share their accomplishments together after the journeys that began during their high school careers.

“I know that coming from Batavia, none of us were the most sought-after recruits by some of the bigger schools, but now we run times here at DePaul that I think would impress most colleges in the country,” Knanishu said. “The opportunity to accomplish our goals with each other at a place like DePaul is very special and I’m proud to be here with this team.”