One of Hamilton’s top young runners has accepted a full-ride scholarship offer to attend Wake Forest University.
Robert Heppenstall of St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary signed Friday (April 17) with the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I school which is located in Winston-Salem, N.C. Official ceremonies were held in the More library.
“Hard work and perseverance pays off,” said St. Thomas More vice-principal Carmen Genovese. “We’re very proud of Robert.”
Genovese noted that while Heppenstall will become a Demon Deacon rather than a Knight, Wake Forest’s colours are similar to More’s.
Heppenstall, 18, rose to prominence last summer when he won gold in the 800-metre event at Canadian Junior track and field championships in Sainte-Therese, Que. He also “shocked” himself in qualifying for, and then competing in, the International Association of Athletic Federations World Junior championships in Eugene, Ore.
Prior to that, Heppenstall raced to victory in the senior boys’ 800m at the 2014 Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations meet in Mississauga. It was the second straight year he had captured top honours in the 800m at OFSAA.
Heppenstall’s medal haul at OFSAA began in 2012 in Brockville. That year he earned a gold in the midget boys’ 400m. The following year, in Oshawa, he came home with a gold in the junior boys’ 800m and silver in the 400m.
Last year the 6-foot, 160-pounder also placed fourth in the 400m at the provincial high school meet.
“I was in my doctor’s office for a checkup when I got a call from North Carolina … Wake Forest,” Heppenstall said of his initial contact with the Demon Deacons, coached by Toronto native, John Millar.
“I didn’t know a lot about the school other than a couple of its notable alumni (golfer Arnold Palmer and NBA players Chris Paul, Tim Duncan). John Millar sent me a hand-written letter and pretty much said ‘we’re really interested in you and want to keep in touch over the summer.’”
During the recent indoor track season, Heppenstall won two separate Athletics Ontario 800m races at the Toronto Track and Field Centre and another at the 400m distance. He also has managed to raise his academic average 13 per cent in the past year.
The offer for the scholarship came in early February.
“That was the end of all ends,” Heppenstall said with a smile. “The thing I liked about Wake Forest was the small–school aspect of it. More individualized attention. And I really like the coach. He’s very well respected.”
Heppenstall’s Monte Cristo club coach in Hamilton is Phil Steel. The two began working together last spring.
“Anthony Romaniw is another athlete who went to St. Thomas More that I coached through high school,” Steel said. “Anthony (who studied at Dartmouth and University of Guelph) is one of the top 800m runners in the country. Robert has just as much talent as Anthony.”
Already many of Romaniw’s St. Thomas More track records have been eclipsed by Heppenstall.
According to Steel, Romaniw developed an aerobic base because he started off running the 1,500m before being moved down to the 400s and 800s for speed development. In comparison, Heppenstall began at the high school level as a 400m runner. Steel says he should be looking to enter a few more 1,500m races in the future to build an endurance base.
“I see him developing as an 800m guy down there,” Steel said.
Heppenstall’s personal best times for the 400 and 800m are 48.98 seconds and 1:50.23, respectively. His goal for the summer, after competing against Ontario high school athletes, is to repeat as Canadian Junior 800m champion and qualify for a berth in the Junior Pan Am Games. He must finish in the top two at nationals and achieve a certain time standard to punch his ticket to Junior Pan Ams. Both of those events will be held in Edmonton in July and August.
“I just want to keep getting better, lowering my times and developing as an athlete,” Heppenstall said. “The intensity level doesn’t stop here just because of a scholarship. This is only the beginning.”
Said Steel: “The NCAA will be good for Robert. He gets competition on a weekly basis. Right now he can run away from all the kids his age in an 800m race. When you run away from everybody you don’t learn.”
Millar also coached at University of Notre Dame and Texas for a combined 25 years before joining Wake Forest. In Canada, the University of Western Ontario graduate was York University’s head coach in the early 1980s and served as an assistant with both the Canadian and American Olympic programs.