Admittedly, Homer-Center senior pole vaulter Jared Nealey cherishes the pressure of a big track and field meet.
They don’t get much bigger than this weekend’s PIAA Championships.
“I like big meets like that,” Nealey said after qualifying for the state meet last week by winning the District 6 pole vault title.
Nealey is one of 22 area boys and 13 girls who qualified for the PIAA Championships, which will be held at Shippensburg University on Friday and Saturday.
Based on the seeding going into the state meet, Nealey is the top local contender to bring home a gold medal.
Fresh off his first District 6 title, Nealey is the second seed in a field of 22 pole vaulters in Class AA competition this weekend. He and top-seeded Luke Patten from West Middlesex are seeded at 14 feet.
Nealey has consistently hit that height over the past month, and he thinks he can go even higher.
But there is an added element of pressure in the pole vault at the PIAA Championships.
At the Shippensburg track, the runways used for the jumping events and pole vault are inside the track and parallel to it, unlike most venues the athletes compete at throughout the season.
Typically, the runways are still inside the track, but at the end zones of the football field.
The location of the runways at Shippensburg adds to the pressure because the pole vaulters are near the 50-yard line of the football field and face the massive grandstand at Shippensburg’s Seth Grove Stadium.
“I’m excited about that. That sounds fun,” Nealey said.
Along with Nealey, Northern Cambria’s Gus Yahner also qualified in the pole vault and the Colts’ junior will be making his second trip to the state meet. He is seeded 10th at the height of 13-0.
The only other local athlete seeded in the top 10 in his event is Penns Manor’s Cody Bytner, who is coming off a record-setting performance at the District 6 meet.
In winning the district title, Bytner broke the school record held by his current jumping coach, Dan Barnes, and earned the No. 10 seed in the Class AA field at the PIAA meet with a distance of 44-2.
On the girls’ side, three area girls are seeded in the top 15 in Class AA competition.
Penns Manor’s Sarah DaBella (discus) and Jennifer Knezovich (triple jump) are both seeded 15th in their events.
Apollo-Ridge’s Reannah Martin, coming off a WPIAL title in the pole vault, is also seeded 15th.
The seeds are based only on the district meets held around the state the week before the PIAA Championships, meaning athletes could have performed better throughout the season, but it wouldn’t show in their seeded time or distance.
Northern Cambria’s Yahner is a prime example of that.
A week before the district meet, he cleared 14-6 to beat Nealey and win the Heritage Conference title.
And that makes him just as much a threat as Nealey to challenge for the gold.
Yahner is one of four Northern Cambria athletes to punch a ticket to Shippensburg. The others are Derek Bearer (400-meter dash), Tyler Olish (high jump) and Evan Ludwig (javelin).
Indiana high jumper Darnae Clemons and Purchase Line senior thrower Joe Price are both examples of athletes whose seeding doesn’t reflect their best performances.
Clemons enters the Class AAA high jump competition seeded 23rd with a height of 6-1. But he has consistently cleared between 6-4 and 6-6 all season.
Meanwhile, after having what he called “an off-day in the shot put” at the District 6 meet, Price slid to the No. 19 seed out of 26 shot put throwers in Class AA. His seeded distance of 47 feet, 8½ inches is nearly 3 feet short of the range in which Price had been throwing most of the season.
Price is one of two area boys to qualify for states in two individual events. In addition to the shot put, he’ll also compete in the discus.
Ligonier Valley senior hurdler Justin Piper is the other. He’ll compete in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles.
On the girls’ side, Homer-Center’s Heather Paynter and United’s Kennedy Fletcher were the only athletes who qualified in multiple individual events.
Paynter will compete in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs, and Fletcher earned a bid in the discus and javelin.
Considering Piper is still a relative newcomer to the sport — he’s in his second season after joining the track team as a junior — qualifying in two events is nothing to scoff at. He’ll be making his second trip to states after going last season as a member of the Rams’ 1,600 relay.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s awesome for my second year of track,” Piper said last week. “Having been there, I’m not really nervous anymore. I’m just excited. Just to get in is pretty awesome. I’m going to try to place in the 300s, see how I can do. In the 110s, I know I’m a long shot, and I accept that, but it’s just exciting.”
Along with Piper, Homer-Center’s Levi McCracken qualified in the 300 hurdles.
Also qualifying in track events in Class AA competition were United’s Shawn Lichvar in the 800, and the Homer-Center’s and Ligonier Valley’s 1,600 relay teams.
Qualifying in field events on the Class AA side were Saltsburg’s Mitchel Yard (javelin); Homer-Center’s Cody Miller (discus) and Mike Newhouse (shot put); and Ligonier Valley’s Brandon Dickert (shot put).
Also qualifying in Class AAA competition were Indiana’s Darrious Carter (triple jump) and Corey Denlinger (javelin); and Punxsutawney’s Nathan Ward (800), Bo Dinger (3,200), Perry Arrington (pole vault), Thomas Renwick (long jump) and Jordan London (discus).
Local girls who qualified in the Class AA field were Marion Center’s Camber Heinle (400) and Hannah Fulton (1,600); Penns Manor’s Devon Bratton (pole vault); and Saltsburg’s Corrine Moore (shot put). Marion Center’s 3,200 relay team and Ligonier Valley’s 1,600 relay team also qualified in Class AA competition.
Also qualifying in the girls’ Class AAA competition were Indiana’s Jessica Hurley (400) and Aaryn Gray (javelin); and Punxsutawney’s Juliann Boddorf (400) and Alexis Minich (shot put and discus).