Area competitors jumping for the stars

Tyrone Area High School sophomore Erika Voyzey saw the performance lists – seedings, for the lack of better word – for the upcoming PIAA Class AA girls high jump competition, and there was her name at the top of it.

“It’s exciting,” Voyzey said.

Exciting, but not all that surprising. Last year, District 6 and District 5 produced 11 medals at the state track meet. Voyzey was sixth in the AA girls high jump. Northern Bedford’s Blake Over was third in the AA boys triple jump and eighth in the long jump. His teammate, Zach Pressel, took home gold in the high jump, and Altoona’s DeShae Lee won bronze in the Class AAA boys high jump.

And last year was far from an aberration. Going back over the last 25 years, this part of the state has turned out a number of terrific jumpers, like Altoona’s Tyler Fedeli and Rachel Gehret, Chestnut Ridge’s Tracie Clair (McMullen), Northern Cambria’s Janae Dunchack, Tyrone’s Christina Burnett, Everett’s Jeff Mills and Forest Hills’ Luke Gallaher – Dunchack, Gehret, Fedeli, Mills and Gallaher all were state gold medalists, with Gehret finishing in the top three seven times and Burnett three times.

The beat goes on this year. Of the 12 No. 1 seeds in the high, long and triple jumps for this weekend’s PIAA Track and Field Championships, three are from District 6, and 11 others from District 6 or District 5 are ranked in the top eight, which is where they need to finish on Friday or Saturday if they are to bring a medal back from Shippensburg University’s Seth Grove Stadium.

That doesn’t even take into account three top-ranked pole vaulters from District 6.

“You know that you have a chance, just like they did. It’s a confidence boost knowing that there aren’t districts out there that are so much better than you,” said Over, who will be competing in the triple and long jumps again this season and is seeded fifth in the triple.

Altoona’s Abby Wagner has triple jumped better than 38 feet, making her the third seed in girls Class AAA this year.

“I want to live up to that expectation coming into the state meet,” Wagner, who finished 11th in 2013, said. “They [fans] want to see big jumps. They want to see big performances.”

“I have never seen an area so rich in track and field athletes, besides the private Philly schools,” said Clair McMullen, who twice finished in the top three in jumping events at states. “The kids seem to take pride in the sport and the history that the schools have in the sport.”

Obviously, there’s plenty of that. Dunchack was the PIAA Class AAAA high jump champion all four of her years. However, District 6 was dominating the event even before she approached the bar for the first time in junior high, winning four of the previous seven gold medals in the event.

“I think it’s just the competitive spirit in the sport among everyone in the surrounding area,” said Dunchack, who has gone on to a great career at Dartmouth. “All it takes is for one good group to come through. Then the seniors inspire the juniors, who inspire the sophomores, who inspire the freshmen, just making a legacy of great jumpers.”

Voyzey, for instance, is bidding to be the third Tyrone high jump gold medalist in 20 years; Joe Thomas won boys Class AA in 1995, and Charles Wilson-Adams matched that accomplishment in 2012. Even if she doesn’t do it this year, she has two more years to try to join them.

“We always blame it on something in the water,” Tyrone coach Chris Shedd joked.

That might be the case. Whatever it is, it creates a survival-of-the-fittest type of dynamic.

“Going against the competition in the area always made it a bit easier when you would get to the state meet,” Clair McMullen said. “You had confidence in the fact that you had already beat some of the best girls in the state. For example, my senior year, Christina Burnett was the top seed going in, and I was the third seed. I had jumped against her already a handful of times and had beaten her.”

This year, Penn Cambria’s Marissa Myers is the second seed to Voyzey, and the two have become friends through facing off in the region’s big meets over the season. However, that’s not all that unusual when it comes to area jumpers.

“It’s always very competitive, but I have very fond memories of making some really good friends jumping and really supporting each other,” Dunchack said. “I think it took a little bit of the pressure off [at states]. As you get into bigger meets and bigger areas, you want to represent where you’re from. Just knowing that, even if I didn’t do well, there were still people from my area and people that I still considered friends had a chance to do well, it made it that much more enjoyable. I didn’t have to stress out as much about disappointing people from my area.”

There’s a wealth of experience with what it takes to succeed at states, and not just from the competitors and their predecessors.

“We have some good quality athletes, along with good coaching,” Over said. “I think the coaches around here are comparable with the [best] coaches around the state.”

Wagner and Voyzey have learned from one of the best: Gehret.

“With Rachel being my coach and being so good when she was in high school, it’s just such a big inspiration to me,” Wagner said.

Over said there are plusses and minuses to weigh from coming into states with a big reputation.

“I’m more confident, because I know what I can do and what the standards are like, but it’s also more pressuring, because you’re expected to do well, and you can have a bad day,” Over said. “Or, that can help, because the pressure can give you that little bit extra push that you need.”

Voyzey said she’s tried to take nothing for granted based on her seeding. She’s not setting her sights necessarily on the gold, but finishing in the top three is a definite goal. That still would add to the area’s prestige in the jumps.

“I think it’s just the mindset. We realize that we may just be double-A, but we have a shot at something much bigger than school size or town population,” Voyzey said. “We have the individual right to do whatever we want and be good at whatever we want. I think we just take ahold of that and just run with it. Or jump with it.”