HIGH SCHOOL TRACK AND FIELD: United Invitational draws rave reviews
ARMAGH — Long before he became the boys’ track and field coach at United High School, Bob Penrose began laying the groundwork to bring back the long-gone United Invitational.
Some seven years ago, when Thomas J. Madill Field was renovated and an all-weather track was installed, Penrose began telling anyone who would listen that United needed to become the sight of a regular-season track and field meet again, like it had been until the mid-1980s.
Penrose’s vision became reality Saturday and came together handsomely in the form of the first “re-established” United Invitational.
“When we knew we were getting the new track, one of the first things we talked about was bringing this back,” said Penrose, then an assistant to legendary coach Bill Lichtenfels.
“We were asked to run the Heritage Conference Meet, so we figured let’s see if we can do that a couple years and do it well. If we do it well, then we’ll talk about bringing this back. And we’ve been pretty successful with our Heritage meets, so we figured we’d give it a run.”
United senior Kennedy Fletcher won all three throwing events, and Saltsburg junior Kia Clayton swept all three jumping events to lead area competitors. On the boys’ side, Homer-Center’s Cody Miller and John Capitosti won a pair of events each, as did Saltsburg’s Deion Robinson.
Five area teams — Homer-Center, Ligonier Valley, Purchase Line, Saltsburg, United — took part in the 16-team meet.
“I was excited about it,” Kia Clayton said of the meet. “It’s better competition against schools that we don’t get to see in our Heritage Conference.”
“I enjoyed it and all the competition because you’ve got Bellwood-Antis and all them. They’re big schools,” Robinson, winner of the 100- and 200-meter dashes, said.
The high level of competition was just what Purchase Line coach Sean Mack was hoping to see when he signed up for the meet.
“I normally go to (the) Bedford (Invitational) on this weekend,” Mack said. “Marion Center goes to Brookville. Penns Manor goes to Bedford as well, and Northern Cambria sometimes goes to Bedford. So about half of the Heritage Conference teams usually go somewhere. And I would go there to Bedford to start to see some other teams, some District 5 teams, some other competition that we don’t normally see. And I told (United athletic director) Cullen Stokes, I’m going to put you on my schedule. I’m going to put Bedford and United both on there, and depending on who you get, if it’s good competition, we’ll be there.”
Windber took home the team title on the boys’ side, while the Bellwood-Antis won the girls’ title.
Three Heritage Conference teams followed the Bellwood-Antis girls in the team standings, with Ligonier Valley finishing second, Saltsburg third and United fourth.
Saltsburg’s Clayton entered the meet as the top seed in all three jumps, and she delivered to begin what appears to be a breakout season.
She won the triple jump by more than 2 1/2 feet with a jump of 36 feet. She won the long jump with a jump of 15 feet, 9 inches, and she cleared the bar at 5-0 to win the high jump.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when my coach told me I was the top seed, I was a little less nervous, but still nervous,” Clayton said.
A state medalist last year as a junior, United’s Fletcher won the shot put (33-5 1/2) and the discus (115-0) by wide margins before edging out top-seed Brittany Krug from Bishop Carroll for the javelin title. Her winning throw in the javelin was 116-9.
Ligonier Valley junior Jasmine Connor also won multiple events, the 400 and the 300 hurdles. She won the hurdles in 48.45 seconds, and she took the 400 with a season-best time of 1:01.34.
United’s Laken Pudliner won the 100 hurdles in 17.08, and Homer-Center’s 3,200 relay team of Mandy McElheny, Heather Paynter, Alexis Leysock and Kristina Albright took first in 10:31.46.
On the boys’ side, four area athletes won events, including three who won a pair each.
One of the best sprinters in the Heritage Conference in recent memory, Blairsville’s Robinson won the 100 in 11.1 seconds and the 200 in 23.11.
Robinson was the top seed in both events, though he didn’t give it much thought.
“I just came out and ran as hard as I could because anyone can have an off day, and anyone can have an on-day,” he said, “so I could have lost them just as easily, but I’m happy I won.”
A state qualifier last year, Homer-Center’s Miller won the shot put with a throw of 44-10 1/4 , and his winning throw in the discus was 124-1.
Teammate John Capitosti won the long jump (19-10) and the high jump (6-2).
“I was kind of expecting to do well in both,” Capitosti said. “Definitely satisfied, but I’ve got some room for improvement, too. I was looking to go over 20 feet in the long jump, but it wasn’t my best day today.”
United senior Jake Beacker won the pole vault on his home track. Better yet, he tied the school record by clearing 13-0 in front of a home crowd, and for now, he also holds the meet record.
“It was pretty cool because I didn’t know that they were resetting all the records for this meet,” Beacker said. “And then, I got the school record and that was pretty cool. I’ve always wanted it. I’ve been doing this since I was a freshman.”
With a few exceptions, the times and distances weren’t eye-popping, and that is to be expected considering the meet was just the second or third live competition this season for most teams.
Just simply seeing some good competition so early in the season was in everyone’s interest, and the meet organizers delivered.
“We were looking forward to coming to this because there’s a lot of good competition, and it was local, it was a nice, easy drive here,” Capitosti said. “With all the bigger schools that are here, it was nice to see where you stack up. … It’s nice to have a bigger meet and have it local.”
“If word of mouth gets out, this meet is going to grow to the point where they’re going to have to start turning people away,” Purchase Line’s Mack said. “It was run very well. They run a good Heritage meet. They’ve always done a good job. But it was always about competition for our kids, and seeing where we fit in and just to get them ready for that district meet. It really was good for our kids because there was some good competition that we needed to see. I’m very happy. We will definitely be back again if they can hold the same teams they had and grab a few more. That would be great.”