BY JEFF FALK
SHIPPENSBURG – Distance runners are a rare and unique breed. So much so that it seems like they make up their own sub-culture in our society.
On Saturday at Shippensburg University’s Seth Grove Stadium, Lebanon County’s middle and long distace clan turned the 88th annual District Three Track and Field Championships into their own world.
With gold medals in five distance events, little Lebanon County certainly made its presence felt in the area’s premiere track and field event. In all, local student-athletes brought home first-place medals from seven events.
Leading the Lebanon County distance charge were Anville-Cleona’s Ben Mason, Drew Gerberich of Elco, Palmyra’s Connor Strynkowski and a talented quartet of Palmyra female runners. While the majority of the County’s gold originated from the track, Palmyra’s Shawn Mayer struck a bit of a balance for the field with his victory in the Class AAA pole vault.
Mason turned the Class AA 400-meter run into a dash, winning it with a strong finish and in 50.11, a time which was a tenth-of-a-second quicker than Morgan Smeltz of Upper Dauphin. Considering the Little Dutchman junior also won the event at last year’s district meet, there were expectations coming in.
“I don’t know if I didn’t go out or something,” said Mason of a sluggish start. “But I didn’t expect that kid to go out that fast. I knew I could catch him, but it was tough. It was tougher than last year. But this is what I hoped for. I definitely fullfilled my expectations.
“The 800 is a run, but it feels like a sprint,” Mason added. “When I saw five people ahead of me, I knew I had to catch them.”
Mason was also a key cog in the Annville-Cleona 3200-meter relay team that struck gold. Proceeded by Mark Bachman and Phil Corle, he ran the third leg of the race, before handing the baton off to anchor Shaun Wolfe.
“In the relay, I felt really good,” said Wolfe, who was also second in the Class AA 3200 meters, but a disappointing fourth in the 1600. “Mark (Bachman) got us out and got us a lead, and then Ben and I made up some distance. Winning as an individual is easier. But I like the way you run in a relay, because you don’t want to let anyone down.
“I’m not as satisfied as I could be,” Wolfe continued. “I was seeded first in the mile and didn’t make it to states.”
Because of the efforts of Mason, Wolfe, Keller Hess, Bachman, Corle and Co., the Annville-Cleona boys finished a strong fourth in the Class AA team standings.
Gerberich’s performance in the Class AAA 1600 meters was sick, literally. The Elco senior willed himself to victory, running on heart while the rest of his competition were using their legs.
At the conclusion of the race, Gerberich became physically ill on his way to the medal podium.
“I gave it everything I had,” said Gerberich between breaths. “No it wasn’t anything I ate. I just puked because I was tired. I just won that race on heart. I just have a big heart. Why did I do it? I got first. It’ll just hurt for the next 20 minutes.”
“It motivates me that all the talk goes to them (Strynkowski, Mason, Wolfe and Cedar Crest’s Shaun Ditzler),” Gerberich continued. “It’s never about me.”
Running on guts and adrenaline, Gerberich made up a 15-yard deficit with his all-out kick, edging Vinny Todaro of Big Spring at the tape. Gerberich’s time of 4:16.54 is believed to be the fastest time ever run by a Lebanon County track athlete in the event.
“I just wanted to qualify for states,” said Gerberich. “On the first two laps, I just wanted to stay in the top five. I went into second place and then thought, ‘Why not go for it?’ If he (Todaro) would’ve increased his lead on the back stretch I wouldn’t have tried it. But that wasn’t the race I like to run. I like to go out fast.
“I would say that it was this year that I realized that track is my sport,” continued Gerberich. “I always liked baseball. I always wanted to go out for baseball.”
Strynkowski claimed his gold on Friday night, in the Class AAA 3200-meter run. With a lot left in his tank, the Palmyra senior out sprinted Lower Dauphin rival Jeff Groh to the finish line.
Strynkowski, the top seed and the reigning Mid-Penn Conference champ, was third before making his move, then was clocked in 9:24.74.
On Saturday morning, Palmyra’s 3200-meter relay team of Olivia Farabaugh, Devin Strynkowski, Maria Tukies and Katie Dembrowski lived up to their top billing by winning the Class AAA version of the event in 9:25.17. That was a second-and-a-half faster than the team from Hempfield.
For Mayer, it was winning the Class AAA pole vault or bust. He did not disappoint, even though he did not put forth his best effort.
“I really wanted to win it because I won it last year,” said Mayer. “If you don’t, it looks really bad. I wanted to come home with a district medal.”
Mayer’s winning vault of 15-0 was three inches better than runner-up Jared Allison of Dallastown, but seven inches off his 15-7 that won the recent Mid-Penn title. Mayer’s Cougar teammate Tim Moses was third in the event, while Northern Lebanon’s Brian Boltz came in fifth.
“In the beginning I felt up and ready to go,” said Mayer. “It was a mindset. I like seeing someone make it (a height) and then it helps me.”
On Saturday morning, Annville-Cleona junior Alena Gardyan, an exchange student from Germany, captured the Class AA title in the 300 hurdles. Gardyan won by more than a second, with a 46.13.
Another Little Dutchman, senior Tricia Light was the runner-up in the Class AA 100 high hurdles, while teammate Brittany Lewis came in second in the Class AA high jump on Friday.