SOL Boys/Girls Track & Field Notebook (6-1-17)

The final track and field notebook of the season highlights CB West’s 4x800 relay team, North Penn’s run to a state title and Valerie Przekop’s journey to another gold medal. (CB West 4x800 relay photo provided courtesy of CB West Track)

By DENNY DYROFF

Accountants and financial advisers aren’t the only ones who crunch numbers. High school track and field coaches also crunch numbers – predicting scores of meets and comparing competitors’ times, distances and heights.

Heading into last weekend’s PIAA Class AAA Track and Field Championships at Shippensburg University, North Penn girls’ coach Dick Swanker and Central Bucks West boys’ coach Greg Wetzel were hard at work crunching their numbers – Swanker focusing on the possible final team scores and Wetzel concentrating on the potential winning time in the 4x800-meter relay.

Prior to the rise of information overload on the internet, it was difficult for coaches to find out meet results from around the state – let alone around the country.

Welcome to 2017.

Websites abound that give interested track coaches and fans the ability to find out who won the pole vault at the Montana High School Association Track and Field Championships in Billings or what the winning time was at the 4x400-meter relay at Alabama’s AFHSAA state meet in Gulf Shores.

There are also numerous sites that compile and compare the top performances in all 50 states. One of the schools that has a place at the top of the list of the nation’s best times is Central Bucks West with its boys' 4x800-meter relay.

At last weekend’s Pennsylvania Class AAA state meet, the Bucks’ foursome of Brian Baker, Luke Fehrman, Alec Hofer and Jake Claricurzio captured the gold medal with a clocking of 7:40.14.

It was not only the fastest time of the season in Pennsylvania, it was the fastest time in the nation for 2017.

“That was a really special moment,” said Wetzel. “I’m really proud of them. I thought on a perfect day, 7:40-low was possible. And, it was a perfect day for us. Everything went really smoothly.

“When we ran the 7:40.14, I knew that it would put us right up there (and) that Top 5 in Pennsylvania would put us in the Top 5 in the country.

“Then, we ran that time and it was the fastest in the nation. They announced it right away at the meet. Brian split a 1:54.4, Luke a 1:56.5, Alec a 1:55.9 and Jake a 1:52.7.

“Alec, who was the only senior of the four, has the biggest drop. It was pretty amazing. He’s a wonderful young man. He will be going to Ithaca College for cross country and track.”

Hofer and his teammates knew the top 10 times around the country but didn’t dwell on them.

“We really didn’t think about it all that much,” said Hofer. “We were more focused on the other teams in the state – and more focused on winning.

“It was my final race so it was really exciting. The four of us were talking about how it was my last race and wanting it to be a good one.”

Claricurzio, a junior, said, “This was our third year running the 4x800 at states so we definitely felt more confident – especially since we went Pennsylvania Number 1 earlier in the year.

“Before we went to Ship, we looked at times. We were just concerned with state times. I predicted that it would take 7:45 or under to win.”

Saturday’s success all began with Baker – the Bucks’ leadoff runner.

“Going into states with our relay, I was really confident,” said Baker, a junior. “I had a lot of faith in my teammates. We were all looking at the state times and the national times

“I never imagined that we’d get the Number 1 national time. What was most important was getting the win that day – and getting a great time. I thought we’d need a 7:43 or maybe just 7:45. I didn’t know it was going to be that fast.”

In one sense, Baker was just happy to be running this season let alone running on a state champion quartet.

“I didn’t have a sophomore year,” said Baker. “I missed last season because of an injury. I sprained and tore ligaments and had to have ankle surgery.

“I couldn’t walk for one month and had four months of physical therapy. Once I was done with rehab, I got inspired and worked really hard to get back to where I had been.”

His hard work carried him all the way to the starting line at Ship’s Seth Grove Stadium – the starting line of a state title race.

“I was a little nervous at the starting line,” said Baker. “I wanted to go out hard. I did get out really well and got in position with the front pack.

“I made my move with 150 to go and handed off to Luke in third. There were four of us right there at the pass – State College, Penn Wood, Pennsbury and us.”

Fehrman, a West sophomore, followed a similar game plan. He ran with the front pack for most of the race. Then he made his move with approximately 150 meters left in his lap and handed off cleanly to Hofer.

“I got really excited right before the race,” said Hofer. “When I was waiting for the handoff, I was nervous and excited. And, I felt kind of determined.

“I got the baton in fourth and handed off in front. I took over the lead with 500 meters left – but the State College guy wasn’t too far behind. I split around 1:55.5 and that was a p.r. (personal record) by two seconds.”

Claricurzio said, “I knew that if they got to me in first, I could go with (State College anchor Nick) Feffer. I had a couple steps on Feffer but not a big lead. I took it out hard but didn’t kill it at the start. I had to save some because of his kick.

“Still, I had to give it my all because I knew he was chasing me. When he came up on me, we were both going hard. From 300 to 200, we were neck-and-neck. We both picked it up more at the 200 mark. Then, I pulled away in the final straightaway.”

Prior to last weekend, the top time in the nation in the 4x800 was 7:40.35 by Maryland’s Oxon Hill High.

The Clippers posted that time when they finished first in one of the large school heats of the 4x800 at this year’s Penn Relays. In the other large school heat at Franklin Field, West was third with a time of 7:47.52.

Both teams competed in Penn Relays’ Championship of America final the following day – and neither did very well. Oxon Hill was ninth at 7:53.12 and C.B. West was 12thwith a time of 8:05.91.

“Two of our kids were sick at the time and we didn’t run well,” said Wetzel. “I think the experience of having it go wrong at Penn Relays was a motivation to have it go right at states.

“A couple of them alluded to that in post-race interviews. They had a chip on their shoulder after falling on their face at Penn.”

Fortunately, Hofer and his underclass teammates were able to go out on top.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my high school career,” said Hofer, who plans on majoring in business and finance at Ithaca in the fall.

Meanwhile, the other three are already looking to the future.

“With three of us coming back, our plan is to find a fourth guy and win it again,” said Baker.

******* 

In the closest finish ever in Girls’ Class AAA at the state meet, North Penn claimed the top spot in the team standings with 51 points while Cheltenham was runner-up with 50.5.

“It doesn’t get any closer than that,” said Swanker. “I didn’t believe it initially. Then, when the coach from Cheltenham came over to congratulate us, it sunk in.

“We’ve been chasing Cheltenham for three years. Cheltenham is always tough. They beat us 66-87 last week at districts. It wasn’t close then and I didn’t expect it to be close at states.”

Fortunately for the Knights, things started falling in place in the big meet at Shippensburg University.

On the first day of the two-day meet, North Penn’s three relays qualified for the finals on Saturday – as did Kat Stevenson in the 200, Mikaela Vlasic in the 800 and Uche Nwogwugwu in the 400.

Adding impetus to the Knights’ title run, Nwogwugwu took fifth place in triple jump on Friday.

North Penn started off on a high note Saturday morning when Jenna Webb, Nwogwugwu, Ariana Gardizy, and Vlasic captured the gold medal in the 4x800.

“After we won the 4x800, I figured Uche had to win the 400 and our 4x100 had to finish in the top three,” said Swanker. “Uche won and we got third in the relay.”

The foursome of Jessica Brenfleck, Kat Stevenson, Natalie Kwortnik and Sophia Broadhurst set a school record and placed third in the 4x100.

In the 800, Vlasic took second place with a school record time. Nwogwugwu successfully defended her state title in the 400 with a p.r. and a school record.

“In the 400, I didn’t realize at first that the girl from Avonworth got between Uche and the two Cheltenham girls (third-place Alexis Crosby and fourth-place Bria Barnes),” said Swanker. “That’s a big difference in points.

“Kat Stevenson made finals in the 200 so I knew we’d get at least one point there. Kat finished sixth and we got three points. And, the same Avonworth girl – Hunter Robinson – beat (Cheltenham’s Chanel) Brissett and they only got eight points. So, there was only a five-point difference there.

“As a result, we were only down by a point-and-a-half heading into the final event. We had beaten Cheltenham in the 4x400 a week before at districts – and they had to use a sub in the finals at states.

“Having Uche at anchor gives you a lot of confidence. We just had to get the baton to her close enough to compete.”

The foursome of Vlasic, Natalie Kwortnik, Jessica Brenfleck and Nwogwugwu was equal to the task.

“Their splits were 57.4, 56.8, 57.5 and 54.2,” said Swanker. “When Jessica came on in the homestretch, I felt pretty good. Usually, Uche has to come from behind. Jessica ran a 57.5 and she had never been under 58.0 before.”

Nwogwugwu said, “Before the 4x400, we were told that Cheltenham was beating us by 1.5 points. So, we knew we had to beat them to win the state championship.

“When Jess handed off to me in first place, I just kept thinking – maintain the lead and run as hard as you can.

“Having the chance to win the state championship really motivated me and gave me something to think about other than being tired.

“The pressure didn’t bother us. We’re so used to being under pressure all the time, it just motivated us more.

“For me, I had a bunch of emotions because it was my last high school race.”

North Penn won the race -- and the state title. It was the girls’ first state crown since 1997.

Swanker, who has been a track and cross country coach at North Penn for more than 40 years, became just the second coach in PIAA history to win the Class AAA state championship with both a boys’ team and a girls’ team. He won with the NP boys in 2002.

The only other coach to accomplish the feat was Bob Shoudt at Norristown High and he did it in the same year – albeit with just two athletes.

In 1976, the Eagles won the boys’ state crown with 30 points when Tony Darden swept the three sprint events and the girls’ title with 30 points when Netta Young matched Darden with wins in the 100, 200 and 400.

Now, Swanker has two state team championships – won by teams -- to his credit. And, his girls have the satisfaction of topping their perennial SOL and District 1 rival Cheltenham.

“This senior class has chased Cheltenham’s senior class for three years,” said Swanker. “They finally came out ahead.”

******* 

This year’s PIAA Class AAA Championship meet was also the swan song for Central Bucks South high jumper Valerie Przekop. The talented senior repeated as state champion last Saturday with a height of 5-7.

In 2016, Przekop jumped 5-9 last year to win her first state title. In indoor track this year, she claimed the state gold medal with a jump of 5-6.

At the district level, Przekop was gold medalist as a junior at 5-7 and then had to settle for a silver medal at this year’s District 1 Class AAA meet with a height of 5-5.

“Valerie has jumped for me since her freshman year,” said C.B. South jump coach Justin Crump. “She really broke out her junior year. She had a p.r. at the state meet with a 5-9 and was first at districts with a 5-7.

“One of the things that really made a difference was that she finally committed to track. Before that, she was also a basketball player in high school and AAU.”

Przekop said, “I had played basketball most of my life. When I was in 11thgrade, I made the decision to focus on high jump. My parents weren’t for it because I was so involved in basketball.

“I started basketball in second grade and began AAU ball when I was in fifth grade. At first, I played for the Warrington Demons and then went to Fencor when I was in ninth grade.

“I played some travel ball with Warrington but most of it with Fencor. I went to the West Coast Nationals with Fencor in the summer of 2013. I was a post player. I played for South in my freshman and sophomore years.”

The seeds for her interest in high jump had been planted before she reached high school.

“In middle school, I did spring track in eighth grade,” said Przekop. “I thought high jump was interesting. It wasn’t as awkward for me as it was for the other girls. I did spring track in ninth and 10thgrade just to stay in shape for basketball.”

Then, her tastes changed.

“With basketball, I was already getting looks from pretty good Division III schools,” said Przekop. “I was planning to go to a good academic school and get some money – even though they don’t have athletic scholarships.

“But, I was getting tired of playing basketball. Track was a different dynamic – and it was a breath of fresh air. For me, it was trying something different and taking a chance on something new.”

Crump said, “Valerie is 5-10. She has height and she has good speed. It was there, but at first, she didn’t put it all together. Once she did put it all together, she just kept improving.

“At states this year, she came in at 5-4, made it on her first attempt and then made 5-5 on her third try. She made 5-6 on her first attempt and was the only girl to make that height.

“Valerie got 5-7 on her third jump and then came very close to making 5-8 on her third attempt.

“She’s a competitor. She shows up at big meets. This was her third state championship in a row -- outdoor then indoor then outdoor. She likes the big stage.

“Her basketball ability has really helped make her better physically. There is no question that it impacted her ability with high jump.

“And, the competitive aspect helped. Valerie always wants to win. She’s very big on competing.”

Przekop’s competitive spirit and natural talent as a jumper – along with her top academic credentials – has led her on a path to one of the country’s top universities.

She has accepted an athletic scholarship to attend and compete for Stanford University.

“After I won states last year, I filled out an online questionnaire for Stanford,” said Przekop. “But, I figured there was no way I was going to go there.

“A few weeks later, I got an email from their coach saying they were interested. I was freaking out. I told him that I was pretty attached to my family and didn’t know if I wanted to go that far away.

“When they recruited me, I realized I would be foolish to turn it down. I went there on an unofficial visit and then an official visit. The campus is beautiful and I really loved the coach. He reminded me of coach Crump at South, who is the best coach ever.

“On my official visit, I slept in the dorm and really liked the girls on the team. So, now I’m headed to Stanford to major in economics and minor in psychology – and to high jump.”