Gotta hand it to them

Central Cambria 3200-meter relay team wins gold again

SHIPPENSBURG — One could try to compartmentalize the Central Cambria High School girls 3200-meter relay team’s accomplishment into a number of moments.

A smiling Lexi Peterman running around the infield as fast as she seemed to run her leg, following her teammates’ circuits of the track. Paige Wess’s defiant pass of a Lewisburg runner that had the audacity to overtake her. McKenna Hayward’s moment of composure and mustering of a forced smile for a photo that divided bouts of near collapse and seemingly took every bit as much effort as the breakneck pace with which she blazed most of her portion of the race.

One could try to do that. One would fall short of doing it justice.

Better to just ask Peterman, Wess, Hayward and Gilkey their two PIAA Class 2A gold medals. That should sum it up nicely.

“Just as great, if not even better,” Gilkey said after the Lady Devils repeated as champs in the four-by-800 with the same quartet by almost 5 seconds, posting a time of 9 minutes, 25.52 seconds in the finals on Saturday’s second day of the PIAA Track and Field Championships at Seth Grove Stadium. “We weren’t sure if we were expecting this today, because there were a whole bunch of teams that were really great when, last year, it was just a two-team race. We had no idea coming in what it would be like.”

It was the highlight of a banner day that served to cement Central Cambria’s elite status in relay and distance running that brightened an otherwise overcast and sporadically rainy morning and afternoon at Shippensburg University. Peterman, Wess and Hayward later teamed with Carly Kaschalk for a seventh-place medal in the four-by-400 relay, and the CC boys 1600 team of Ian Primel, Mike Walwro, Kayden Kutchman and Evan Bopp took fifth, while Walwro also reached the medal stand with a sixth-place showing in the 800-meter run.

“It’s really exciting. Not a lot of people can say they went back-to-back state champions, so it’s really exciting,” Peterman said.

Top-seeded coming in, the Lady Devils led the four-by-eight on each of the last two handoffs, with Hayward bolting to a huge lead that the opposition could not overcome even when the effects of the sophomore’s energy expenditure showed with her dramatically slowing down the final stretch. Mifflinburg was second, and two other District 6 teams — Marion Center and Forest Hills — also finished in the top eight to medal.

“McKenna keeping that lead the way that she did, that was really awesome of her. I give her the props for that one,” Gilkey said.

Hayward said there was no method to her mad dash.

“I actually was just running like kind of scared, almost, because I didn’t want them to catch me,” Hayward admitted. “We don’t really have a strategy. We just go out there and run like we know how to do it, and we did that.”

Gilkey even was within mere meters of first when she finished the first leg of the race. After Peterman ran down the few competitors ahead when she received the baton and moved into the lead with about 250 meters left in her portion of the relay, the only time the Lady Devils trailed was a brief juncture when Lewisburg passed Wess going down the back straightaway on her first lap.

Wess didn’t relinquish the advantage for long.

“It kind of scared me a little bit at first, because she was going pretty fast, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can stay with her,'” Wess said. “When she went ahead, I kind of sensed that she was slowing down a little bit, and it was my turn to go back around her and show her that I could beat her.”

With a lap to go, Wess, also a sophomore, kicked it into another gear and left the opposition far in the rearview mirror, an advantage the hyperactivated Hayward built upon.

“It’s even more exciting to know that we could do it two years in a row,” Wess said. “Like one year wasn’t enough for us, and we wanted more. We came back and won it.”

The anchor last year as a sophomore, Peterman was switched with Hayward into the second leg of the relay this year.

“I think it worked either way. We’re a pretty good team. We can switch around. Any leg can go anywhere,” Peterman said. “Being in the second leg, I have more people around me. I have more teams around me. I just go off of what I have around me.”

In this case, she was running in a bit of a pack when her turn arrived.

“I just saw Syd (near the lead). When I got it, I just slowly made my way up. I kept picking them off, one by one, until I finally got the lead. At the 200, I just kicked it,” Peterman said.

The lone senior on the 3200 team, Gilkey is a steadying influence at the start. She took the quick lead, then fell back a bit, but never so far back as to be a problem for the Lady Devils.

“I was OK with (not finishing first in my leg). I think because everyone was so close, it really didn’t matter to me what place I was in, as long as long as we were all going to get across the line,” Gilkey said.

Gilkey suggested that it didn’t take a lot to get the team ready to try to repeat its gold medal performance from last year in the hours leading up to the race.

“Not a whole lot. We kind of motivated each other a little bit, talked about it, talked through what we were feeling and drank a lot of water and ate good food,” Gilkey said.

So spent was Hayward after the race that she had to lean on her teammates on the awards stand and was unable to do interviews until after the four-by-400 at the end of the day, spending several minutes seated in a chair with her head at about knee level and Peterman holding an ice bag on her back.

When it came time to close out the 1600 relay, though, Hayward was ready, bursting out again when she got the baton. Her pace wasn’t as electric this time, but she had enough in the tank to assure the Lady Devils a seventh-place medal in that race, finishing in 4:07.15.

“We just didn’t want to end up last,” Hayward said. “And we did that, and we ran 5 seconds faster than last year, too.”

Kaschalk ran the opening leg of the 1600 relay. She didn’t like running out of the blocks at Shippensburg and, always mindful to not false start, took off on her own feet.

“It’s always a lot of pressure on me. I always want to get them the best start as possible,” Kaschalk said.

Kaschalk said running relays at Central Cambria are special.

“It’s really awesome. We have a great group of girls, and we all get along so well. Getting to run with them is even better. We’re always supporting each other and pushing each other to do our best,” Kaschalk said.

That mindset isn’t just limited to the girls. Walwro even credited his relay teammates with playing a big role in his ability to run a personal-record 1:56.92 to take sixth individually in the half-mile run.

“Those guys, every 800 I run, they’re on me, they’re watching, they’re cheering me on. They’re always at the starting line saying something that gets me in the zone,” Walwro said. “It’s still a team. Track, you can get kind of disconnected with all the events, but those three other guys, everything we do (we’re there for each other).”

The Red Devils broke the school record by registering a 3:25.88 in Friday’s preliminaries, and they almost did it again on Saturday, posting a 3:25.21 when the 6-foot-2 Bopp caught Lakeland at the finish line.

“I was giving it all I could,” Bopp said. “We’ve been running since middle school expect for Ian; he’s a newbie. We’re so competitive against each other. It’s competitive in general. So, we’re being pushed, and we push ourselves.”

Saturday’s state final was the first time all year the Devil 1600 relay hasn’t placed first.

“We still ran pretty well,” Kutchman said. “Our motto is ‘Go 100 percent all the time,’ any practice, any meet, and it got us this far.”

“It feels really great that we made it this far,” said Primel, who ran the lead leg. “I really wasn’t expecting us to get this far, but, when we started running races and winning, I got more excited.”

Walwro’s finish to the season was exciting in itself, with numerous sub-2-minute half-miles either individually or in the relay in the final month of the campaign.

“Somehow, I found a way to push the backstretch. I delayed my kick a little bit, and it ended up giving me a better kick longer for that last 200 meters,” Walwro said. “Something flipped. I don’t know what it was.”

Walwro said running the relay is easier than running individually.

“In the relay, it’s not just me. I’ve got three other guys out there, and I’ve got to run for them more than I run for myself,” Walwro said.

Walwro said he was in disbelief with how the season played out.

“To get two medals ….,” Walwro started before changing gears, “If you would have told me I was going to get two medals (Friday), I wouldn’t have believed you. I don’t think it’s set in yet, because I’m tired, but on the bus ride home, probably after I wake up from my third nap, then it will hit me.”