Heading into the 2019 PIAA Track and Field Championships at Shippensburg University on Friday, May 24, and Saturday, May 25, Elizabethtown Area High School had already outdone itself from last season. The Bears had just one state qualifier in 2018, bumping that number to five this time around (four individuals and a relay team).
However, by the time the actual meet was finished, they came away with the best overall outing for the program in states since 2007, earning three medals and breaking a number of school records along the way. The Lady Bears also finished 24th overall in Class 3A with 11 team points.
“That was great,” head coach Derrick McDonald said. “We’re looking forward to some fantastic things in the future from these athletes and others, but today, it was definitely cool to see.”
Friday’s schedule was filled with preliminary races across the board, with four Elizabethtown entries competing to move on to Saturday. Two were able to advance; the girls 4×800-meter relay (senior Cat Shontz, junior Katie Locker, sophomore Madeline Quinn and freshman Sierra Kapcsos) won its heat in 9:25.42 and went into the next day as the top seed from prelims. Locker also finished third in her heat and fifth overall for the girls 800-meter run (2:14.89).
The other two entries weren’t as fortunate. Shontz, running just a couple hours after leading off the 4×800 relay, valiantly powered through the girls 1,600-meter run but faded down the stretch to place seventh in her heat and 18th overall with a time of 5:18.16, missing the cut down to 12 runners.
Junior Derek Heisey was even closer to advancing. Racing in the final heat of the boys 300-meter hurdle prelims, he had the odds stacked against him in a talented field. Heisey didn’t back down though, finishing in 39.54 to take third in the heat and break the program record previously set in 1981.
However, he was barely beaten out for the eight-man finals by 0.18 seconds, which put him in ninth overall for the event. Still, it was a tremendous performance for Heisey, who entered the event seeded 24th out of 26 competitors.
“It felt amazing,” Heisey said. “Being in lane seven, I knew I needed to run hard from the start. I saw the competition in front of me and just kept with them through the last 100 meters. Next year, I hope to place in the 300 and qualify for the 110, but I know I need to keep improving in the offseason.”
“I had a conversation with him after the race, and even though he was a little bummed not to have made the finals, he realized that was the school record,” McDonald said. “That was our goal at the beginning of the season. It’s still awesome to see despite coming up short.”
Saturday’s events were kicked off with the girls 3,200-meter run, with both Shontz and Quinn representing Elizabethtown in an especially stacked field. Eight of the top 15 seeds, including both Lady Bears, were from District 3. For the majority of the race, Shontz and Quinn ran in the middle of the pack, alternating from as high as 10th place and as low as 15th place. When the last lap came, their paths diverged. Quinn wound up gradually fading, ultimately finishing in 20th (11:31.14).
However, Shontz found a second gear, going from 10th to seventh by passing Wilson junior Bryn Underwood, Oakland Catholic senior Hannah Schupansky and North Allegheny junior Hannah Lindgren on the first turn. She held firm during the final length, earning a seventh-place medal in 10:36.41, the first of her career at the state level. Shontz, who will be attending Temple University, also broke her own record set at this year’s District 3 Championships.
“I was worried about that (pass) because I don’t have too much of a kick,” Shontz said. “I was hoping I could just keep it going throughout the whole lap. It just comes naturally now. I figured it was possible considering that a lot of people running were from our district, so I just went for it.”
“We’re losing not just an athlete, but all the intangibles she brings to the team,” McDonald said. “It’s sad but also exciting since she’s moving on to bigger and better things. We as a coaching staff just have to prepare and develop someone new to try and fill her shoes. It’s gonna be hard to do, but we’re really happy to see her medal.”
Fatigued following the 3,200, Shontz and Quinn had a short time to get ready for the girls 4×800-meter relay finals with Locker and Kapcsos. Leading off again, Shontz was in last for most of the first lap before rapidly moving up the field near the end. She briefly surged ahead from there to take first, though North Penn was able to move in front on the final length, leaving Shontz in a virtual tie for second with Central Bucks West.
“I was kind of dead,” Shontz said. “In the last 100, my legs started to give out. It was back and forth down the stretch. I was just telling myself to get a lead so we could finish the way we wanted to.”
Kapcsos fell back in the field by the end of her two laps, holding the ninth spot on the handoff. Quinn had her work cut out for her given some tired legs from the 3,200 but came up big on the second lap by passing Seneca Valley and Carlisle to move into a tie for seventh with Central Bucks East, setting up Locker for the anchor.
“I was a little unsure about our position going into my first lap,” Quinn said. “I wanted to run fast but not too hard. On the second lap’s backstretch, I was able to pass the girl from Carlisle and fight with the other girl in front of me.”
Locker gradually decreased the distance in front of her, quickly eclipsing CB East and later passing Wilson and Upper Dublin in the middle of the final lap. She nearly ran down North Penn to finish in third but came up just .09 seconds short. Still, the Lady Bears came out with a fourth-place medal in a time of 9:16.25. Like Shontz, the group broke their own program they had established at districts.
“When I pass people, it gives me more confidence,” Locker said. “I just tried to keep going and pick off as many as I could. At the end, I wasn’t able to get the girl in front of me, but I think she pushed me. If she wasn’t there, I don’t think I would’ve finished as strong.”
“We knew that we had something when we started to put stuff together for the Penn Relays,” McDonald said. “Exactly how much of a step we could take from there, we weren’t sure. But we had a talented team, and today was proof of that. They were ready for the big stage that states brings. We’re elated with what these young ladies have accomplished.”
In addition to anchoring the 4×800, Locker ultimately anchored Elizabethtown in states as a whole during the finals of the girls 800-meter run. Similarly to Shontz and Quinn in the 3,200, she was running on tired legs from her previous events, and the competition had some talented heavyweights as well.
For most of the first lap, Locker battled for position amongst the last eight runners, as the top four put plenty of distance between themselves and the rest of the field. In ninth place entering the last lap, she moved into seventh by overtaking Hampton senior Cambell France and Gwynedd-Mercy Academy sophomore Kelly Murray on the first turn, followed by a pass of Butler senior Liz Simms and Cardinal O’Hara senior Christin Mancini.
That was enough to give Locker fifth place in 2:12.00 flat. It’s the third individual medal of her career and her best overall finish across three years at Elizabethtown. She also broke her own record set at last year’s district meet.
“I wanted to push it as much as I could,” Locker said. “I was up against a lot of good competitors, so I was just gonna try and stick with them. If I wanted to medal, I knew I needed to make a move right there. I wanted to PR this year, so to do it now and break the record feels pretty good.”
“It’s one of those things where we have to try and strategically place our athletes where they can succeed best,” McDonald said. “We knew Katie would do well, but how well depended on the talent of the rest of the field. We certainly had faith in what she could do, and I’m pleased with the effort she showed.”
While Elizabethtown’s regular season didn’t go as smoothly as last season’s, its postseason performances in 2019 far surpassed 2018’s. The Bears totaled 16 medals at leagues, 5 at districts and 3 at states, in comparison to 14, 2 and 1 in those respective meets last year.
Moreover, the majority of the medals this season came from juniors and sophomores, which bodes well for the future. While they will be losing plenty of seniors (eight for the boys, seven for the girls), they should also be in a strong position to improve once again come 2020. Hopefully, they’ll be able to boost their qualifiers for districts and states in the process.
“I definitely think we can,” McDonald said. “When I first started as coach, I had the idea of a five-year plan for the program. This is the end of year four, and we’ll be ready for year five. We’d love to compete for the section and league title, and maybe districts as well. Based on the showing we had at states this year, we can definitely have a better one next season.”