Two for the books

MIFFLINTOWN – Juniata was always supposed to be the home team when the Indians ran against rival East Juniata in their first Tri-Valley League track and field meeting.

But it was only supposed to be on paper – the meet, like all of Juniata’s home events, was to be run at the county’s other school while work was being performed around the track facilities in Mifflintown.

So the fact that the Indians had a home meet – on their track – was perhaps a pleasant surprise. The real happiness for the home team came when the scores were added up: Boys, 103-47 Indians. Girls, 80-70 – also to Juniata’s advantage.

“They had to hire my dad on Tuesday morning to come and line the entire track, the javelin, the shot put and the discus all in one day,” Juniata coach Kim Hart explained. “I was sure we wouldn’t get to have the meet. This was a big deal today, to go against EJ, here.”

The scoring in the girls meet was far more reflective of the rivalry, not a surprise considering the complementary quality of the two squads and the depth advantage Juniata has in the boys. Each team had a pair of sweeps; the Tigers had nine firsts to Juniata’s six, but won only one of the three relays.

In fact, East Juniata coach Mark Ritzman thought his team won the girls meet until score sheets were reconciled at the end, and Juniata ended up with more points in a couple more events than he calculated.

“Our girls had a stunning day today – an absolutely great day. In my mind, they’re winners,” he said. “It was just really all around, we had some really phenomenal things today.”

And then, with his perpetual smile, noted, “They have to come see us next week.”

Both coaches thought the girls meet would be decided in the final event, and Hart said she had no qualms about telling Carly Burns that the victory would be in or out of her hands in the javelin. Burns, who won both distance races and had just come off the 3,200-meter run, finished second to the Tigers’ Cassidy Dillman, but it was enough to clinch even before the scoring change.

“You can tell her that,” Hart said. “Some girls would break.”

Key for the team – and for personal achievement – was Juniata’s Lexie Zimmerman, who won the triple jump and was tops in the uncontested pole vault; in the latter event, she went over the bar at 9 feet, 6 inches for a school record.

“There’s no competition – but she still wants to get the school record,” Hart said admiringly. “She got it here at Juniata, her place.”

The boys outcome may have looked lopsided, but there was no more exciting moment for the home team than the 110 hurdles, when Nick Gilbert edged East Juniata’s David Brantley.

“It’s a showdown,” Hart said. “It was going to be about putting in your head you know you can do it. Nick is a phenomenal competitor.”

That, too, was good for a historical entry as Gilbert separated himself by two-tenths of a second from a three-way tie for the Juniata all-time mark; he ran 15.1 to beat Brantley (who got event in the 300 hurdles, by the way).

East Juniata had moments, too, just not on the score sheet. In another thrilling finish, the Tigers’ Dakota Carvell streaked ahead of the pack in the 200 at the end of his heat.

“And the 400 – that was the first time he ran the 400. He’s very promising – he’s an up-and-comer. Keep your eye on him,” Ritzman said. “That’s exactly what I want from them. We had so many events today, so many races where people did well. That’s what I want.”

Gilbert proved to be the MVP for Juniata, winning not only the 110 hurdles, but the high jump; he also was second in the 300 hurdles and was on the winning 4×100 relay team as a replacement for Neil Bodley.

“He took the anchor and ran against his biggest and best competition again,” Hart said. “You know his legs are weak at the end of a meet to go high jump against a boy that’s at least a foot taller – and then still win.”

Brand Brackbill also stood in for some of the eight missing athletes from the Indians’ roster, including what Hart called the top three, due to injuries.

“He ran four tough races today. He ran the 4×800 that was pushed to the end. He won the mile. He won the 800. And he was pushed from behind when he got the baton in the 4×400,” she said. “He’s another one that I have to give so much credit to today.”

And then she thought about the common thread that Gilbert, Zimmerman and Brackbill shared: “Those are three of the littlest kids on both teams, and they’re three of the darned toughest.”

Juniata (boys 3-1, girls 4-0) travels to Greenwood Tuesday. East Juniata (3-3, 1-2 boys and girls) hosts Millersburg Monday.