By Phil Grove
Any owner of a classic or high-performance car will tell you that to fully appreciate these marvels, one must display them in near-perfect, sunny conditions. No rain, sleet or snow for those beauties.
Well, in track and field, it’s not always possible to save the athletic marvels for perfect weather that never seems to arrive. Despite an annoying, soaking ran and gusty winds that almost sent one team tent chasing after Dorothy into the Land of Oz, several of western Pennsylvania’s best were in top gear at the annual Mars Invitational.
The talented sprint corps from Gateway seemed unaffected by the weather, rolling at high RPMs to four event titles and a record from a veteran 4x100 relay team.
With three-fourths of last year’s Class AAA state champion quartet back for another run at Shippensburg, big things have been expected from the Gators, and they did not disappoint in their trip around the six-lane oval. Set in lane three of the final heat, the squad of junior Aaron McCoullum and seniors Jae’Len Means, Montae Nicholson and Cameron Gray covered 400 meters in a meet record and PA#3 42.55 seconds, knocking four-hundredths of a second off their 2014 best.
“We’re still doing endurance, strength kinds of things,” veteran coach Tom LaBuff said of his squad’s current workouts. “We’ve started doing some turnover stuff, some faster stuff. Part of it’s there, but they’re not sharp yet.”
According to LaBuff, Friday’s lineup included McCoullum as an alternate leadoff sprinter. With the WPIAL meet only weeks away, the final starting lineup for Gateway still has some work to do.
“We haven’t really spent much time at handoffs, a couple of shaky ones there today,” Gateway’s coach said. “We probably will stay with the order that’s there. The last three are the same as the last three from last year. We’re always open to something that’s better, (but) Montae’s staying on that turn. He runs that turn like nobody’s business. He runs a great curve, he runs a fantastic curve.
“You dream (about their fastest time), but I hate that event. All you are waiting for is somebody to drop (the baton). They came close, but it’s exciting. You know what’s exciting too is standing in the middle of the field listening to people say, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at those guys.’ Really in this weather, 42.5, that’s nuts.”
Nicholson also is very adept at running in a straight line as the state’s No. 1 ranked high hurdler steamrolled a field that included another member of the state’s current fastest five and one of West Virginia’s top performers. Warming up with a 14.61 clocking in prelims, the senior multi-sport standout ran 14.43 in the final and was more than a second ahead of Wheeling Park’s Richard Cummings (15.49).
The next event resulted in even more Gateway points. Means and Gray battled at the front of the field in the 100 dash, eventually crossing that way in clockings of 11.36 and 11.38, respectively. And then hours later, Means slipped past Isaiah Brooks of Woodland Hills with a picture-perfect lean, gaining the 200 victory in 23.02 to Brooks’ 23.03.
Nicholson also collected a runner-up finish in the long jump, pushing meet recordholder Brooks. The Woodland Hills standout spanned 23-0.5, while Nicholson’s best covered 22-4.
Hurdler, distance standout battle competition, weather
On the girls’ side, a smooth-running hurdler and distance runner outshined strong competition in picking up a pair of wins each.
Still undefeated in 2014, senior Emily Lelis of Springdale was shadowed in a fast 100 hurdles final by Pine-Richland junior Kat Quigley as the pair finished more than a second ahead of the rest. Lelis held a slight edge throughout the 10-barrier event, hitting the line in 14.71 to Quigley’s 14.86.
“I really haven’t had anyone to push me at invitationals the last few years,” Lelis said. “She definitely pushed me a lot, she’s a great athlete and she’s only a junior so she is going to be really good next year.”
Later in the 300s, Lelis had a cushion at the front in which she is more accustomed as the long hurdlers battled the weather. The senior crossed first in a PA#8 45.34 and was more than 1.5 seconds ahead of the No. 2 hurdler.
“It definitely hinders me a lot,” she said of the stormy weather. “My steps were the same in the 100, but I had to go over with my left leg a lot in the 300s. The wind was really bad in the last 100, so it affected my steps a little bit. It was definitely hard running today, but everyone had to go through it.”
In the lap races, North Hills senior Mary Malone was the shadow to Vincentian Academy’s Marianne Abdalah during much of their duels in the 1,600 and 3,200 runs. Both times, Malone let the freshman set the pace before taking the lead and not looking back.
“I felt good and strong the first three laps, and I knew I had something left,” Malone said of her strategy with a lap to go in the metric mile. “At the bell, I thought if I kicked then, I could outkick her to the finish. I have been working on making a good strong move instead of just going in front of the person. I think it worked. I was happy with it.”
It was a victory for Malone in a PA#5 4:58.14. Abdalah was not able to respond to Malone’s bold move with 400 remaining but did hold on for a PR 5:02.36.
The scene was repeated in the 3,200 as the freshman led Malone for the opening four laps. With the clock showing 5:34 at 1,600, Malone knew it was time to go.
“I saw the time was (5:34) and I really wanted to break 11 minutes, and I knew the wind was against us so I knew I had to pick it up for the last mile,” said Malone, who hit the finish in 11:07.99 to Abdalah’s 11:14.05. “I decided to just make a big move. Last time my move wasn’t as strong (at the Butler Invitational), and she came back so I knew I had to really make a good strong move to get away.”
Other top performances on the track included a solo PA#8 2:16.60 effort from 800 winner Gina Alm of Hampton and a 59.72 clocking by Gateway sophomore Ayanna Crawford in the 400.
In the shot put, PA’s top freshman was the winner as Lizzie Weimer of Burrell was credited with a best of 38-2.5, topping Greenville’s Molly Montalvo and her 38-1.5 toss. Montalvo got revenge in the discus, winning with a throw of 119-7 to Weimer’s 114-8 in second.
On the boys’ side, Caleb Smithco of Hampton picked up his second invitational record this season, putting together a consistent series that dominated the triple jump competition. His shortest hop, skip and jump of 45-2.75 would have been enough for the gold medal, but the senior also was credited with marks of 45-7.25, 46-1.5 and 46-2.5.
His winning effort in the third of four rounds also is a meet record, again taking the oldest existing mark off the books by 2 inches. Brooks was second at a near season best of 44-10.
Freshman sensation Jordan Geist of Knoch was a double winner in the wet weather, going 54-5 in the shot put and a PR and PA#8 163-1 in the discus. In the high jump, Noah Bostick of North Hills cleared a T-PA#8 6-4 for the victory.
And back on the track, Nathan Sloan of Hampton held off Seneca Valley’s Brett Foster in a battle of seniors in the 1,600, with Sloan’s 4:21.78 ahead of Foster’s 4:22.21.