by Tom Utescher

At last week’s John Hay Distance Festival, Cece Dye of Germantown Friends runs with Germantown Academy’s Dan Ritz in the Mixed Open Mile. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

At last week’s John Hay Distance Festival, Cece Dye of Germantown Friends runs with Germantown Academy’s Dan Ritz in the Mixed Open Mile. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

It wouldn’t be easy for Germantown Friends’ Sarah Walker to top her 2013 performance at the John Hay Memorial Distance Festival. A year ago at the event at West Chester’s Henderson High School, Walker entered the elite-class 800 meter race and turned in a time of two minutes, 8.55 seconds, the fastest time of the year run by any ninth grader in the United States.

In the middle of May, Walker shaved a tenth-of-a-second off that time at the 2014 Pennsylvania Independent Schools Championships, setting a new state scholastic standard for the 2014 season. Returning to Henderson High last Friday for this year’s edition of the Hay gathering, she once more found herself in a field of former college stars, some of whom are training with an eye toward the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials.

The Tigers sophomore came in 10th overall, and her time of 2:06.62 knocked almost two full seconds off of her previous PR and moved her up to third in the nation in the 2014 scholastic standings.

She was one of a number of area track athletes at the West Chester meet, most of them hailing from GFS, but with Germantown Academy, Penn Charter, and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy also represented in the field.

In Walker’s own race, a third-place finish in 2:03.89 was achieved by Germantown Friends assistant coach Latavia Thomas. A former West Catholic star who went on to become a 12-time All-American at LSU, Thomas has run under two minutes in the 800. The 14th finisher last Friday was 2012 GFS graduate Carey Celata (2:10.15), a former Tigers harrier who’s currently a member of the squash team at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We did a lot of good stuff tonight,” summed up GFS head coach Rob Hewitt. “Sarah’s 2:06 was absurdly cool, and that was the goal.”

In the open 3000-meter race at the end of the evening (one of a number of “mixed” events where male and female runners competed at the same time), Penn Charter junior Ben Szuhaj was the winner in eight minutes, 56.27 seconds. The 3200-meter champion at the Pennsylvania Indy Schools meet, Szuhaj was almost 14 seconds in front of the runner-up in his race at the Hay Festival.

A victory in the open 200 meter dash (the shortest race at this distance-oriented competition) went to Jordan May, a former GFS sprinter. May, who won in 22.98 seconds, graduated from the Tigers’ team last spring and is now running at George Mason University.

In the boys elite mile, Germantown Academy junior Sam Ritz finished fifth overall in 4:13.35. Competing in another event at the meet were his two younger brothers, Owen, and freshman, and Dan, a seventh-grader. In the elite mile the lone SCH athlete on hand, Graham Allen, placed 22nd in 4:28.82. A senior, Allen will continue his track career at Grove City (Pa.) College.

Two of the biggest draws at the Hay Festival, with dozens of runners racing in multiple heats, were the mixed open 800 meters and the mixed open mile. There were many GFS entries in both categories.

In the 800, Tigers senior James Finney clocked in at 2:02.30, finishing eighth in an overall field of 66.

His 11th-grade teammate Peter Jarka-Sellers placed 25th in 2:08.74, while another GFS junior, Brigit Anderson, led her heat for most of the race and ended up being the second-ranked female with a time of 2:20.59. Sixth among the girls, in 2:22.43, was Tigers sophomore Alice Wistar.

In the open mile, GFS sophomore Grayson Hepp was seeded in the fastest heat and came in second overall out of 96 runners who entered. His time of 4:24.52 put him less than two seconds behind the winner from Lower Merion High School. Nick Dahl, a Germantown Friends freshman, has run a 4:22 mile, but he was unable to race last Friday.

Tigers junior Joe Newmann was 19th in the mile with a time of 4:40.54 and sophomore Gordy Goldstein was 22nd in 4:43.01.

“Grayson Hepp had a PR, and with Nick Dahl we now have a 4:22 miler and a 4:24, which is great,” the Tigers’ Hewitt said. “Joe Newmann and Gordy Goldstein ran very well and they just keep getting better, and the exciting thing is that all of these guys we’re talking about will be coming back for us.”

Among the girls in the same event, GFS had three top-20 finishers; freshman Griffin Kaulbach (13th; 5:37.12), senior Cece Dye (17th; 5:45.88), and sophomore Caitlin Harrity (5:47.39). Dye will run for Kenyon College next year and her classmate, Finney, will join the team at the University of Vermont.

“For the most part, both the boys and girls are young teams, so one main thing we’ve been working on this year is confidence,” Hewitt noted.

He explained that even most of the younger runners are past that initial developmental stage where new personal bests occur frequently. Many are now at the point where a lot of hard work and more specialized training are required to make relatively small improvements.

“We’re trying to get things to a new level,” he said. “What we’ve been seeing is that they want to be successful to be confident, and what I’m saying is, we’ve got to be confident to be successful.”