BALTIMORE - Move over, baseball.
Summer's pastime will have to share the spotlight this year with track and field. Members of the Juniata Striders youth program are the reason: Six individuals were among the top 25 nationally - including a pair of All-Americans in three events - in a variety of events at the USA Track and Field championships, held last week at Morgan State University's Hughes Stadium.
Malik Sechler and Kiana Sechler, both of whom traveled to Wichita, Kan. for national competition a year ago, were the top finishers among the local contingent.
Alyssa Lunch launches her javelin in the bantam javelin event at the USA Track and Field championships last week at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Lynch’s efforts were good enough for 22nd in the event.
Malik, competing in the Youth Division, was fifth in the triple jump with an 11.72-meter effort. He also was ninth in the long jump, just shy of the medal stand.
Kiana became a two-time All-American over the course of a few days, first reaching 1.25 meters in the high jump - finishing fifth - and then getting a fourth-place leap in the long jump (4.09 meters), both in the Bantam Division.
"Kiana, I think she was seeded 12th or 14th," in the long jump, said Ron Sprecher, the retired Indian Valley track coach who was key in starting the youth movement.
"We were sort of shook up. I said to Scott (Sechler, her dad), 'There's four kids there that are frightening. But then from fifth place to about 15th place, we're talking centimeters,'" Sprecher recalled. "Malik, I think it was two centimeters he missed All-American in the long jump. And there's a kid right behind him."
You'd expect it to be that close, he said, when the top 50 kids in the nation are reaching for the same brass ring.
"The talent down there, it's just unreal," Sprecher said. "(A time of) 48 seconds couldn't get you into the finals in the 400. A boy ran a 10.42 100. When I left there were 14 kids still in the pole vault and it was over 16 feet.
"That's the talent level you're trying to compete against. That's scary."
Despite that, the entire Juniata Striders contingent came away in the upper half of the field in their respective events. Another member of the Sechler family, Josiah, was 14th in the sub-bantam javelin. Jay Ciccolini made it to the semifinals in the youth 800 before settling for 19th overall.
Alyssa Lynch, who ran in the USATF youth cross country national meet a year ago was 22nd in the bantam javelin at this event. And Justin Jacobs was 24th in the midget javelin.
"I was impressed with the poise of our kids. They didn't come unglued," Sprecher said. "They were throwing just about as good as they could throw under those conditions."
The meet took place during a heat wave that saw temperatures approach 100 degrees. That didn't slow the performances, although the performances slowed the meet.
"A kid broke the national record (in javelin) with three straight shots. They had to stop the meet, get the steel tapes out, get three officials here, three officials there and they had to certify three times," Sprecher said. "That's impressive.
"Kiana was in the high jump where a girl broke the national record two, three times. That was like three hours in that heat," he said. "You go to two events with your kids and you see two national records. That was probably the highlight there."
Despite their youth, he said, the athletes were as competitive as the Olympians in London this week.
"They were going after it, and every one of our kids was unhappy as to where they actually placed," wishing they had done better, he said. "Kiana was different - she was pleased with herself - but the other kids were not.
An example he cited was Malik Sechler's effort to get closer to the board before jumping. He was trying to work around the wind, and work with coaches were did not have a bullpen from which to work.
"Coaches can't get to the kids - we're trying to give hand singles," Sprecher explained. "He made an adjustment, and the wind died down."
It was even more of an effort because the team wasn't staying in Baltimore; instead, Sprecher stayed with family in Hershey and commuted to the campus each day. A handful of parents came along to help out, he said.
Of the program, in just its second year, Sprecher couldn't be happier - especially since he knows he's working with truly raw material.
"One of the college coaches I was talking to down there said, 'We really don't have it as hard as the high school coaches. The high school coach does all the fundamental work and then he hands it to us. We just polish them off,'" he explained. "When you go to the junior high level or club level, you're not recruiting talent, the kids are walking in and you try and help them develop. It's a lot of work on fundamentals."
His goal is to open a pipeline of talent for the Mifflin County track and cross country teams, and try to neutralize the dominance of State College and Altoona in District 6. The youth program runs from April through the end of the national meet, with practices two nights each week. The cross country program begins in early September.