So, this is the end.
Sitting alone at a table in a seat I called home for the better part of 22 hours, the echoing of leaf blowers filling the air as workers cleared debris from the Seth Grove Stadium bleachers, my computer screen faded to black. At that moment, with a flip to close the laptop and a return to its case, the 2017 PIAA Track and Field Championships had officially ended.
A long journey home still remained along Interstate 81. During which time, I reflected just as athletes might have been doing on their return trips. A frantic season has concluded, and with it, for me really, so too does an amazing era of track and field. After each state medal is presented to a Lackawanna Track Conference athlete, I began a practice of grabbing a photo of them with their medal. The smiles, well, they are worth 1,000 words. The joy, it’s sometimes hard to capture in writing. I conclude that exchange with a hand shake. Because of the fast-paced format of the state meet, those moments are generally fleeing, enjoyed then gone in an instant. Some, though, I clasp a little tighter.
Each season closes with me saying good-bye. All of the athletes who I have the honor of covering play a huge part in forming memories for me. In track and field, because of the individual and team honors the postseason presents, I spend a lot of time around and getting to know the kids, their families and their stories. In this sport, also, when you are talented, a lot of times, you have an impact for all four years of your varsity careers.There is a bond created there. Maybe it is because I competed in the sport, maybe the athletes have pity on me, but as athlete and reporter, I feel we build friendships.
So often in this sport, I find myself in awe of what high school athletes continue to achieve. When these stars reach their goals, knowing how hard they have trained, worked, endured the chaotic spring weather, and committed themselves, admittedly I get choked up when they receive their medals. Some of our interviews can get emotionally tough at their conclusion.
On Friday and Saturday, athletes from the Lackawanna Track Conference kept parading up on the medal stand. At times, it became hard to keep up. When that computer was finally at rest, I realized a chapter also finished.
Among the medal winners, there were seniors who saw the one stage of their athletic life finish. Seniors who have left legacies on their programs, the conference, the district and even the state.
North Pocono’s Matt Slagus gave me a giant bear hug and lifted me off my feet (which is no easy task at 240 pounds) after
receiving his silver medal in the Class 3A shot put. When he burst upon the scene following his sister, Jenn’s dominance in the field events, his personality and ability overwhelmed me. In three years, I have watched him throw the discus and put the shot at a greater distance than any athlete before him in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In today’s technological world, he texts me after every invitational he attended. His records speak for themselves, and to regurgitate the numbers would just be overkill. He’s the best there has been in this area. He has the perfect personality. They say timing is everything. True, especially in his case. Normally, in a career where his marks have been so off the charts, a state championship seemed inevitable. But, he ran into an even stronger thrower in Knoch’s Jordan Geist, who is the best this state has ever seen. So, when Slagus celebrated his two silver medals like they were gold, admittedly, I got a lump in my throat. Because that is what track and field is about. A celebration and appreciation of achievement very few can enjoy. It isn’t going to be the same without him, but my bet is he will find a reporter who covers the University of South Dakota to hug next spring.
Then, there were a couple of guys who I am just getting to know.
Carbondale Area’s Jason Jablonowski has been what we call in track circles a “lifer.” He has been one of those steady athletes who has stayed true to the sport and been rewarded. The state meet can be very unforgiving and when he started his competition in the Class 2A javelin with a foul and a throw 30 feet less than his best, I began to worry. But, he came through with a solid effort on his final attempt. He paced nervously around the warm up area as officials went over the results to determine who would make the final. When he heard the cutoff number and he had made it, you could just see a joy overpower his emotions. When he was presented his state medal, he took a deep sigh of satisfaction.
Lackawanna Trail’s Matt Kinback gave me plenty to write about the last two weeks. I enjoyed meeting him for a feature I did on his experience at last season’s state meet. When a high school athlete looks to the sky, shakes his head and just says, I can’t wait to get back to states, you know they have done a lot of work to get back to that stadium. Listening to his words and the pitch in his voice, I knew, he wanted to be on that medal stand. He competed in both the high jump and the 800. An injury slowed him in the high jump, but not on the track. A towering runner at 6-foot-4, his graceful stride and determination led him to a fifth-place finish and a coveted medal. It takes a lot for a young athlete to admit they were tearing up, but Kinback had no choice. This was the moment he had envisioned after all his grueling workouts.
Montose’s Harley Mullins, heck I barely knew him. This was his first year as a varsity runner for the Meteors. Talk about an athlete. Naturally, I have a natural affection for the 110 hurdles because I ran that event, but it was so impressive to see how far a senior had come in such a short period of time. When he earned a state medal in the Class 2A race, he was at a loss for words.
Western Wayne’s Ryan Atcavage gave me plenty to write about in two days. I knew going into the state meet, he had a
real shot at a gold medal in the pole vault. I also knew, if he just ran the 300 hurdles, he would win another medal. But what this kid showed me was pure guts. He didn’t just go through the motions. He won his qualifying heat of the 300 hurdles and broke 40 seconds. While it’s hard to describe what that means to an athlete in that event, all you need to do is see him cup his face into his hands. He followed his performance up with a silver medal run in the final on Saturday. Because he was also competing in the pole vault, he could have jogged around the track and still won a medal. Instead, he respected the sport and the meet, and went out and took what was his. Then, when he returned to the pole vault, he won a gold medal. A state champion as a senior. It is a moment I have shared with athletes before, but it never gets old.
Now you all must indulge me. This is going to be tough.
BROOKE ESTADT and MADISION HARDING
Brooke Estadt and Madison Harding have been two of the most decorated athletes in the history of the Lackawanna Track Conference. They are a package deal. They spent the last four seasons leading the Lakeland program to undefeated regular seasons, conference and district titles, and record-setting performances. They are my neighbors — well neighbors as defined in Scott Township and I have known the two since they were 9 years old. I’ll never forget, on an autumn-like night in June way back then, when as softball teammates of my daughter’s they were part of a team that pulled off an improbable upset in a drama-filled U10 softball game. At that time, though, I could just tell by the abilities they showed at that early age, track and field would be their future. It came as no surprise when they started setting records in junior high and coaches were telling me, wait until these two get to varsity. It all began when they were freshmen and became teammates with Cassidy Jenkins. They all went to their first state meet that year, and Brooke even won a medal. They came back as sophomores and juniors, and this season dropped the curtain by combining for three medals. A quick glance at their accomplishments on paper and one might think, well that’s been easy. Their success has not come without pain and agony. Each has gone through and endured physical injuries, most they didn’t want known. They ran and jumped, and even threw for the name on the front of their jersey. They were proud to wear the Lakeland colors and represent their program, school and community. Someday, hopefully that school will show its appreciation by putting them, along with Cassidy Jenkins, in its Sports Hall of Fame. It’s where they belong. Now they move forward. Brooke will go to Cornell and Madison will go to Lehigh, which I, being a Lafayette grad, will not hold against her. Last time I checked, those are two pretty good schools. I probably won’t get to see them compete again, so thank you both for all you have done to make these four years special.
Now, those are my individual senior state-medal winners. I want to thank all of the seniors because there were also a couplple who were part of relays who won medals and all the seniors who helped make this an amazing season. There were so many highlights and so much happiness and success in this postseason, I can’t believe it’s over already.
I tried to cover you ALL the best I could. Hope you all enjoyed the blog posts.
To those underclassmen, and we had a lot on the medal stand this weekend, I can’t wait for next year. I hope I am still able to cover the sport. These are the reasons I love this sport and I love this job.
These kids make everything worthwhile.