GA’s Sam Ritz (left), a senior headed for Columbia University, won the high school elite 800 meter run over PIAA state champion John Lewis (right), a Cheltenham High School senior who will run for Clemson. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

GA’s Sam Ritz (left), a senior headed for Columbia University, won the high school elite 800 meter run over PIAA state champion John Lewis (right), a Cheltenham High School senior who will run for Clemson. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

More than 30 area runners travelled out to West Chester last Tuesday evening to compete in the 10th Annual John Hay Memorial Distance Festival at Henderson High School. Some were taking their last laps of the 2015 outdoor season, while a number of elite runners were looking forward to the New Balance® Outdoor Nationals, which will be held in North Carolina in the middle of the month.

In the marquis events toward the end of last week’s Distance Festival, a pair of outstanding performances in the “Elite” 800 meter races were turned in by Germantown Academy senior Sam Ritz and Germantown Friends School junior Sarah Walker.

Ritz, the reigning state indoor champion in the mile, was facing Cheltenham High School senior John Lewis, who had won the PIAA Class AAA title in the 800 on May 23, recording the second-fastest time in the country for 2015. The Columbia-bound Ritz won in 1:50.72 (a U.S. number- four time), edging out Lewis (1:50.93) and third-place Dom Perretta (1:51.27). Perretta is the PIAA Class AA champ from Beaver Falls High School, which is located about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.

“I knew I was in the kind of shape to do it – I might even be a little faster than I ran,” Ritz remarked. “As a miler running the 800, I’m not as fast early in the race as some guys, but I’ve got strength at the end. I want to save it for the last 100 meters, because I’ll need that for the big championship races.”

Walker was not challenged down the stretch in the girls’ race, but still pushed herself to a new personal record of 2:06.43 on the Henderson oval, where she had established PR’s in 2013 and 2014 (2:06.62). Initially, she seemed a little disappointed when she learned of her time, even though it netted her fourth-place in the latest national rankings.

“I felt good,” she said. “I was expecting some people to be with me and push the last 200, but that didn’t happen. I was looking for 2:05, maybe even 2:04, but my coach said I didn’t need to peak tonight and that we were looking to the next couple of weeks.”

The Tigers junior will be running in the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational in Cuba this weekend, and then will compete at the Outdoor Nationals on June 19-21.

There were even a few events for sprinters at the Distance Festival in West Chester, and three of the five Springside Chestnut Hill Academy entrants took advantage of this. Senior Alex Mollick, who will attend Johns Hopkins and who set new records in the 100 and 200-meter dash at the Pennsylvania Independent Schools championships last month, won the 200 at Henderson in 22.65 seconds. A one-two-three sweep for the Blue Devils was completed by Mollick’s classmates Sam Grasso (23.70) and Phil Giovinazzo (23.77).

In the girls’ 200 race, GFS freshman Teasha McKoy placed third in 27.16 and Tigers sophomore Emily Kastenberg was seventh in 29.37. The Tigers also has a runner in the girls’ 400 meters, where freshman Helen Ruger ran fifth in 1:04.70.

The longest race of the evening, by far, was the mixed (male and female) 5000 meter run at the end of the evening’s agenda. A Dartmouth-bound Penn Charter senior, Ben Szuhaj, was eighth in this one with a time of 16:20.97. Earlier, Szuhaj participated in the men’s elite mile, finishing in 4:24.90 to place eighth in his heat and 19th overall. Racing in the other heat of the event, GFS sophomore Nick Dahl was 11th within this somewhat faster group, and his time of 4:19.26 put him 15th overall.

The most heavily populated events at last week’s gathering were the mixed mile and the mixed 800 meters, where male and female athletes of all ages were seeded by their 2015 PR’s into a number of different heats.

Swiftest of the 14 area runners in the mile were GFS junior Gordon Goldstein (4:38.85) and sophomore Daniel Stassen (4:39.85). They placed seventh and eighth in their heat, respectively, and 15th and 19th overall.

In another section were Penn Charter sophomore Harper Pollio-Barbee (third in the heat and 25th overall), and GFS senior Peter Jarka-Sellers (fourth/26th). Their times were 4:42.56 and 4:44.34, respectively. In the same heat was SCH sophomore Noah Chandler (4:45.29), who was one spot behind Jarka-Sellers and 30th overall.

In between these last two in the overall standings was Sam Ritz’s sophomore brother, Owen. He finished 10th in a faster heat, while his time of 4:45.03 made him 28th in the total field. Also 10th in his heat was SCH junior Will Concannon, who was 47th overall in 4:56.50.

Just shy of the five-minute mark but ahead of her winning time at the Inter-Ac championships, GA sophomore Abbe Goldstein clocked in at 5:01.70 to get sixth in her heat and 56th overall. An eighth-grader for the Patriots, Danny Ritz (the youngest of the four brothers) was 72nd overall and eighth in his race at 5:12.19. Goldstein also had family in the race; her seventh-grade sister, Isabelle, placed eighth in her heat and 93rd overall with a time of 5:33.31.

Ahead of her in the overall standings were three Germantown Friends milers, junior Alice Wistar (84th; 5:23.22), senior Noah Kulak (85th; 5:23.57), and sophomore Griffin Kaulbach (88th; 5:27.61). Wistar and Kaulbach ran in the same heat, placing 13th and 14th, respectively, and Kaulbach, in a different race, came in sixth.

Another GFS athlete, freshman Elise Hocking, was slotted seventh in her heat and 100th overall as she finished in 5:55.19.

Griffin Kaulbach, a GFS sophomore, runs between younger and older male competitors at the Hay Distance Festival. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Griffin Kaulbach, a GFS sophomore, runs between younger and older male competitors at the Hay Distance Festival. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

The seven local entries in the mixed 800 were all GFS Tigers, starting with top-10 finisher Grayson Hepp. A junior, Hepp clocked in with the sixth best time altogether (1:57.89) and was fourth in the fastest heat.

Sophomore Jonnie Plass (2:02.21) was fifth in his heat and 20th out of all competitors, while seniors Ethan Jones (34th; 2:05.67) and Mathias Hammer (35th; 2:06.20), running together, crossed the line third and fourth. That heat also included junior Jad Blaik, who was seventh out of this group and 56th overall (2:21.77).

In a another heat, freshman Colin Reilly hit the 37th time overall (2:07.28) and was ninth within his grouping. Sophomore Ethan Addis ranked 61st overall, coming in fourth in his heat with a time of 2:26.24.

Other events at the festival featured coaches and alumni from area institutions. Ben Ritz, the eldest of the GA brothers, has just finished his sophomore year at Columbia, and last Tuesday he won the men’s elite 1500 meter run in 3:50.82. In the women’s 1500 Carey Celata, a Penn sophomore out of GFS, placed third in 4:34.83.

In a separate heat of the men’s 1500, GFS assistant coach Phil Celona came in fourth with a time of 3:57.93.

When Sarah Walker set a freshman PR at this meet back in 2013, the weather was uncomfortably hot. Last week, it was cool to begin with, then distinctly chilly for the thin-clads after dusk. Drizzle and mist persisted, and although it never developed into steady rain, there were only a few brief spells when no precipitation was present.

In the hours leading up to her race, Walker and some of her team mates found ways to cope with the unseasonably cold conditions.

She related, “The bathroom’s warm, so we were sitting in there, and I was in my mom’s car for about five minutes. Mostly, it was just blankets and stuff.”

Right before her race, Sam Ritz and Cheltenham’s Lewis would square off. In their two head-to-head encounters in the 800 during the indoor season, each had beaten the other once.

On Friday, May 29, Ritz had run the mile out at the prestigious Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. Even within this top-flight field, he’d been dissatisfied with his sixth-place finish.

“That was probably my biggest disappointment this year,” he admitted. “I was hoping to run there like I did here today. I was kind of bummed out over the weekend, but one trait I’ve tried to learn as an athlete is to create good races after less-than-stellar ones. I’m pretty happy I was able to do that tonight.”

Lewis held a slight lead over Ritz and Perretta at the end of the first lap, and then Perretta began to move on the back straight.

Ritz related that back at the halfway point, “I wasn’t quite confident enough to take it out [over Lewis] right there, but it paid off because Perretta is a heck of an athlete, too. I kind of played it safe, and had a nice finish.”

Lewis and Perretta were battling at the front approaching the final turn, but then Ritz passed them both and remained ahead as the trio went down the home straight.

Like a number of athletes at the meet, Ritz momentarily mistook a set of markings on the track for the finish line, when the actual line was another ten meters farther on. He recovered quickly and still secured the victory, although he gave away a fraction of a second in his time.

“I’ve done that before here, so I realized it pretty quickly,” he said.

While Ritz’s race was limited to elite high school competitors, Walker’s was open to older athletes, as well. GFS assistant coach Kelsey Rose, a former middle-distance runner for St. Joseph’s University, was signed up for the race, and served as a pacer or “rabbit” for the first lap or so.

“She took us through the first 400 at about 59 or 60 [seconds],” Walker related, “and then I passed her around 500.”

No one went with Walker. Near the end of the back straight, she appeared to slow down slightly, as if trying to get a sense of where the competition was. She realized she was on her own, and still managed to grind out a PR.

The cool weather in West Chester was significantly different from the conditions that will probably await Walker in Cuba and then in North Carolina.

“We had some hot days last month and I kind of got a feel for that,” she related. “I know I have to try to stay hydrated during the day [leading up to a race], because sometimes I forget.”

She’ll need to be at her peak for another two weeks, and she said, “I’m just going to try and keep in top shape, but not overdo it.”