Penn Hills at the Penn Relays:
You gotta love it when a dream comes together.
Penn Hill head coach Lee Zelkowitz has been a part of the program since he began as a volunteer coach 15 years ago. For most of that time, it was a dream of his to put together a very competitive 4x800 meter relay team.
For about a dozen of those years, it was a dream unfulfilled.
Since 2008, though, that dream has become a reality, and is actually starting to cause other coaches to lose a little sleep.
"I used to envy those teams, the North Penns of the world," Zelkowitz said a couple of days after his newest 4x800 had qualified for the Penn Relays Championship of America.
"I'd see them run well year after year, and just scratch my head."
Zelkowitz is now focused on one thing - getting back to the PIAA AAA state championships in May, and this year, making the final and taking a run at a title.
You read right. Getting back.
But last year's team nearly ran a season best of 8:01.38 on Friday of the state meet, and missed advancing to Saturday's finals by two spots and six seconds. They had run their school record 8:00.40 a week earlier, finishing 3rd at the WPIAL (District 7) Championships.
But the 8:01.38 at the state meet was some consolation, because only perennial power Baldwin had finished ahead of them in the prelims.
Zelkowitz says his team; and he; wanted more – to break 8 minutes, and to advance to the state finals.
If this season so far is any indication, they are well on their way.
For ten of those fifteen year in the Penn Hills program, Zelkowitz was an assistant coach. Five years ago he took over as head coach in track. Two years later, he added the head coaching position in cross country.
That is when his dream of a competitive 4x800 meter relay team started to become a reality.
His lead-off and anchor are both seniors, and both have cross country to thank for the base they are using now. Anchor Charles Anderson has been on the cross country team all four years of high school - making state for the last three of those years. Lead-off Dorian Rumble has run three years of cross. (In photo to left, behind Abington's lead-off leg)
Zelkowitz says his seniors lead by example, getting the guys together for long runs on the weekends, and creating an environment where mutual respect is the main value. "What is so great is there is no jealousy," says their coach. "They are genuinely happy for each other's success. Exactly what a relay needs to be."
His senior's performances at this year's PTFCA Indoor Champs were a clear indication of what was coming. Forced to make a choice between the 4x800 and the Distance Medley Relay, they chose the DMR. But then they showed half their hand in the open 800 meter run, with Rumble finishing second in 1:55.48 - a PR inside or out... and Anderson
(In photo to right)
taking 5th in 1:56.17, also a lifetime PR.
The team dipped under 8 minutes for the first time at the GaREAT National Indoor Champs in mid-March in Ohio, going 7:59.32, running virtually alone on the 300-meter oval.
They would improve that mark and set an outdoor PR of 7:58 at a dual meet against Plum just prior to the Penn Relays.
But cross country has also been a key ingredient to the relay's success with their middle two legs - and the core of next year's squad - sophomore Tyree Squires and junior Thorn Catlin.
Squires (In photo to left, beside LaSalle's 2nd leg) moved into the district as a freshman from Atlanta, but was not eligible for indoor. When Zelkowitz saw him split 1:59 on a relay last year, he knew he had another piece in the 4x800 puzzle. But when he saw Squires stick with the older guys during a tough 300's workout, he was really impressed.
All he had to do now was talk him into coming out for cross country to build his base.
Actually, it was Squires who made the decision to skip summer track last year, because as he told his dad and coach, 'I need to do cross to get good.'
Squires almost qualified for state in his first fall of cross country, finishing 42nd, and just 13 seconds behind three-time qualifier Anderson.
Junior Thorn Catlin (In photo to right, ahead of Abington's 3rd leg) was a football player who was convinced to run cross country as a sophomore. A strong quarter miler, Zelkowitz says Catlin has great range - boasting a 51.66 400 and a 16:52 5000 in cross.
The carnival that is the Penn Relays.
So coming into the elite competition and intense atmosphere that is the Penn Relays, the coach knew that some teams were peaking; while his team was in the distance and lactate threshold training phase of the season.
But Zelkowitz was confident. It was his birthday weekend, and he told the kids he wanted two things - to run with them for the warmup, and to set a team record. He actually got four presents - two team records, and qualifying for the Championship of America (COA), to go along with the warmup.
Running in the first large school heat (3rd race), Penn Hills dropped six seconds off their team record, going 7:53.47 and getting fourth and putting them in 6th position overall. Twelve would make the COA. Zelkowitz knew that six teams had to better their time to knock them out. Only five did. They would be the 11th seed.
"The guys were ecstatic, but not jumping up and down. They're humble guys. And they were just proud of themselves."
On Saturday afternoon, the team got to experience more than just the large Penn Relays crowd. They got to experience a crowd that had just witnessed an anchor leg by the world's fastest human - Usain Bolt of Jamaica.
To say the atmosphere was charged would be an understatement.
Again, Zelkowitz was confident. But he was also thrilled from a coaching standpoint, because the back-to-back races on Friday and Saturday were great experience for what the team hopes to face at the state meet.
Rumble is the leadoff because, as his coach says, "he is as solid as they come. You may think he is done, but he isn't. He always puts us in a great position."
Rumble opened with a 55.8 split and handed off to Squires in 1:57.4. Squires had run a strong 1:57.8 split on Friday, but was forced to go out in a 55 on Saturday. He payed slightly, handing off to Catlin in 1:59.5. A 400 specialist, Catlin went out in 54 and handed off to Charles Anderson at 1:56.4. Anderson had split a 54 on Friday, but ran evenly on Saturday with a 56.5 split to a 1:57.2.
The 11th seed coming into the COA had finished 8th in another school record - this one 7:50.76.
Zelkowitz knew the team may be headed for the 7:40's this season - but not at this point.
"In September, if you had asked me, I knew we would be under 8 minutes. But I did not expect this."
Now it's back to training. And because the team did not make their WPIAL team meet, they'll have time for real preparation for the WPIAL qualifiers on May 11th, the WPIAL (D7) Championships on May 20th, and if all goes as planned - the PIAA State Championships on Memorial Day Weekend in Shippensburg.
The team is deep enough with the addition of Micha Murra and Brandon Ifill to run both the 4x400's and 4x800's The races occur both days, but are at opposite ends of the schedule.
Zelkowitz is enjoying the ride.
Actually, it's a dream come true.
And with one of the next year's two missing spots likely to be filled by sophomore Wil Bailey, it's a dream that may very well become a tradition - kinda like the North Penns of the world.