By John Montgomery
The experience is there, and so is the talent. Now it's time for Seneca East to bring it together.
Four of the five Tigers who qualified for this year's Division III state track meet have been there before, but only two of have found their way to podium. However, this year's bunch has the potential to find the steps, coach Justin Ruffing said.
"All five of them are really good, hard workers and put in the work, and now hopefully this weekend it can pay off for them," he said. "They've all earned what they've gotten so far."
And there's more to get.
The Tigers have finished in the top 10 just twice - seventh in 2009 and ninth in 2002 - in the previous 12 years and have not scored more than 18 points in a single state meet over that same span.
That could change, starting Friday.
Senior Kevin Moore is back in the 110 hurdles after taking sixth last year, junior Jason Willman returns in the 3,200 after taking eighth last spring and also has qualified in the 1,600. Senior Ben Hahler returns in the shot and makes his first state trip in the discus, and the pole vaulting tandem of junior Zach Gregg and freshman Cory Depinet includes a return to state by the former.
Each could be viewed has having something to prove.
Moore is a returning placer, but must run in Friday's prelims in Lane 8, despite having the third-fastest time (14.55) in his heat. That's because the regional finals at Lancaster, where he ran, produced three others faster than him.
Still, Ruffing said the challenge of an outside lane shouldn't deter Moore.
"We expect him to make finals. The region that we came from was really loaded in the 110s. With the way it is this year, you get to finals and it's anyone's game," Ruffing said. "That regional, that group, first through fourth was all in one group, separated by a couple feet.
"Lane 8's not a big deal, especially for him," he said.
Willman comes in with the rare double of qualifying in the meet's two longest individual races.
What's even more rare is for a runner to compete in both, something Ruffing said he and his junior will discuss right up until the last moment for the 1,600.
Ruffing said the decision will depend on a myriad of variables, but the 3,200 option appears to be the most favorable for running.
"So far, looking at the weather, the weather looks like it will be nice. Being in the 70s and mild weather, it really lets you think about the double," Ruffing said. "We'll maybe look at the same strategy as the regional. We'll look and see how he looks in both. You also look at who else could double and who could drop [a race]. We may not make the decision until right before he runs.
"We've talked about it," he said. "If it looks like he has a chance to win one or the other, that will obviously play a big role in our decision making process."
There will be no such decision for Seneca East's other two-event qualifier.
Hahler will cap his career with trips to the shot put and discus rings on the meet's first day, ranked third in the shot put (57-4) and 12th in the discus (154-0).
Getting there in both wasn't unexpected, Ruffing said, and each came after a solid season.
"Really for him, this year, it's been the extra work he's put in," he said. "He switched from the glide to the spin [in the shot] and worked hard in that, and it's paid off for him. He's PR'd by six feet.
"He can improve on that," Ruffing said. "He's had throws go 60 feet or more, he just hasn't stayed in the ring. If he can do that, he'll do well."
Along with hopes of a spot on the podium, the vaulters each seek a little something personal, Ruffing said.
For Gregg, it's redemption.
He qualified for state last year, but exited early after not clearing the opening height.
"Last year, it wasn't nerves or anything like that. We weren't quite sure what pole to put him on ... ," Ruffing explained.
"He'll be ready to go. This year he's a lot more dialed in," he said. "There won't be much experimentation going in. He'll know exactly what to do."
Meanwhile, Ruffing said he hopes Depinet can turn in a good personal day and build off the experience for the seasons to come.
"He's got another good week now of work, and he's improved at the end of the season. Now just go down and PR. If you PR, just see where the chips may fall," Ruffing said.
"To be able to go there as a freshman and compete and compete well would be a good stepping stone for him," he said.
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It's a familiar trip for two area senior girls, with Seneca East's Ashton Daniel making it three years in a row in the shot and Carey's Dana Newell back for her third trip in four years in the high jump.
Daniel finished ninth as a sophomore and seventh last year and hopes to move higher up the podium this year by bettering her third-place distance from the regional (40-10 3/4) and her personal-best 41-3 1/4 from the district meet.
"Forty-two or 43 would be nice," she said.
"It's exciting; good way to end senior year," Daniel said.
Though exciting, Daniel said the atmosphere and experience shouldn't distract her.
"You know more what to expect, so you just have to go down there and you just have to stay positive and not get down on yourself, and do your best," she said.
It's much the same for Daniel, who said adapting and even-keeled approach is the way to go at state.
"When you get down there, you just have to go with it because you never know what's going to be thrown at you," she said. "It could be rain the one time when you're jumping; maybe it's going to be a 20 mph wind.
"Excited to go back again," Newell said.
"It's a lot of a load off my mind because I know you've got to be 'here' and you've got to do 'this' and you've got to do 'this,'" she said.
Her biggest worry, she said, comes from her regional effort after clearing 5-3 for a title.
"Actually, I'm more nervous because everyone will be out to get me now," she said.
Newell said she believes she'll have to at least jump that high to gain her first trip to the state podium - she tied for 12th at state in 2010 and ended 10th in 2012 - while matching her personal-best of 5-5 should ensure a high place.
Coach Holly Wentling said following that plan is well within Newell's ability.
"I think it's meant a lot to Dana. She's jumping really well because she's jumping clean until she gets to about 5-3 or 5-4," Wentling said.
"When you look at the girls going down to state, she's one of many who are there at 5-3," she said. "I think if she can jump clean through 5-3 or 5-4, she will podium."
Two more of this year's area qualifiers had to put in a little extra work for each to gain their first state berth.
Lakota junior Makayla Kiser and Old Fort sophomore Adam Alexander each advanced in the pole vault after taking the fourth and final berth at the regional in vault-off competitions.
Kiser outlasted Colonel Crawford's Alex Carter after both cleared 9-6 and failed make 9-9. The pair both went over 9-6 in the vault-off, with Kiser then clearing 9-9 on her first attempt for the state berth after Carter missed on her first try.
"I was pretty calm myself. I felt really confident in her abilities and she was vaulting pretty well. She's a business-like girl, but she was pretty nervous," Lakota coach Dave Ritter said.
"She went airborne to shoulders of coach [Jacob] Biddle and I don't think she touched much ground in between," he said. "I think she was extremely elated. She came off the pit pretty quick.
"I'm looking for her to start taking ownership of her abilities. She's a very talented young lady," he said. "I believe in her, all the coaches believe in her and this is like an exclamation point in what she can do."
Now it's on to state, where Kiser said she hopes to break through.
"It's amazing, it's great," she said.
"I'm hoping to PR and hoping to break the [school] record (11-4)," she said.
Her dramatics came two days after Alexander went through the same situation with Hilltop's Will McKinney.
They each cleared 12-6 but went no higher during regulation jumps.
The pair later resumed vaulting, with Alexander going over 12-4 and McKinney not making it.
"It was interesting because we hadn't seen a jump-off at regional for close to 12 years. I felt he was mentally prepared to do it," Old Fort coach Tony Miller said.
"It was great. He's not the biggest kid, but his heart is just as big as any of the other ones," he said. "Pretty much all week he knew what he had to do and [that] he had to have no misses as high as he had to go."
The result also gave Old Fort an Alexander vaulting at state for the second year in a row. Adam watched his older brother Nathan claim second last year, but now he gets to be the one competing.
"I'm going to be able to go inside the fence [to compete], which will be nice," he said. "I think it's just kind of cool that, instead of being the one watching everyone, I'll be the one getting watched and it'll be a complete different feeling."
And with all the advice he gets, Miller expects the younger Alexander to have a good day.
"Having his brother as a role model and more or less a coach helps him out tremendously," Miller said. "He's also been getting some help from [Shawn] Beamer from Bellevue and Tim [Decooman] over at Liberty-Benton.
"He's got some good coaching," he said.
Another pair of area athletes will hit the track in the 300 hurdles, with Lakota junior Cariss Reese competing in the girls meet and Buckeye Central senior Austin McDonnell taking part in the boys meet.
Reese had the opportunity to double in the pole vault and the hurdles at the regional, but Ritter said she made a difficult decision to focus on the race.
"Last year she was fifth in the hurdles [at regional, one spot away from state] and she wanted to feel confident in that she did everything she could do to do well and obviously it turned out to be a wise choice," he said.
Like Moore in the 110 hurdles, Buckeye Central coach Joe Wiles said McDonnell faced stiff competition in the 300 hurdles to advance - McDonnell took third (39.19), the slowest qualifier ran 39.27 seconds and the winner set a meet record by crossing the line in 37.88 seconds.
"It was some of the toughest competition in the hurdles that I've seen in a regional meet. It was ridiculous. Coming in, there were six or seven guys under 40," Wiles said.
"Right now, time-wise, he's sitting about eighth," he said. "We've talked and we're shooting for top five. Times are so tight with everybody, except for the guys running 37s, that on any given day anything could happen. The hurdles are a great equalizer. You never know; make the finals first and go from there."
The area's final qualifier is Old Fort senior Marcus Meyers. He'll run in the 1,600, just a few weeks after overcoming an injury.
"About a month ago, he had a high ankle sprain. But he was determined to back into it," Miller said. "I knew he was in shape, and it was just a matter of how his mental aspect was, and in the last month he got himself in mental shape."
That paid off at the regional.
Meyers followed a plan of hanging back in fifth until the final lap, then progressing up in the pack to take third and earn a trip to state.
"He felt he waited too long to take off. [But] hopefully he can do the same thing down there," Miller said, referring to Meyers following the plan. "It will be a lot faster race, but he talked about he wanted to do it."