There is no better testament to the overall strength of the Long Island track and field scene than the performance of two medley relay teams in intersectional competition at the New York State Championships on March 2 at Cornell University.
A veritable All-Star group of Suffolk County boys, composed of Ward Melville's Vincent Cicale and Connor Christian, Whitman's Gerald Riley and Port Jefferson's James Burke completed the showcase medley relay in 8 minutes, 50.95 seconds -- a meet record.
Not to be outdone, Suffolk's girls team, made up of Lindenhurst's Alyssa Barthelmes, Bay Shore's Jacqueline Anderson, West Islip's Jessica Ball and Kings Park's Kathleen Naeher won their medley relay in 10:22.
The relays provided only a taste of Long Island's track and field prowess. Six individuals and three relay teams left Ithaca with state titles.
Sayville I 55 meters
Sayville's Christopher Belcher was the "happiest kid in New York." And why not? He only won the 55 meters in 6.35 seconds, topping the second-place finisher by nine-tenths of a second -- a respectable margin in such a short race.
After running 6.53 in the preliminaries and 6.46 in the semifinals, Belcher was warmed up and poised to sprint for a championship. He knew that a good start in the final was a key to taking home top honors.
"I worked on my starts every single day [that week] and they got better and better," he said.
When the gun fired, the senior burst off the blocks.
"It was the perfect start, the best I've ever had in my life," Belcher said. "I just started exploding and I was gone."
The time was also a personal best.
"I did my thing," Belcher said.
Clearly, his thing is winning.
Smithtown West I High jump
Smithtown West's Mike McCann knew exactly what he was in for as he rode up to Cornell University. The high jumper went to the state meet last season and was comfortable with the environment.
After coming up short in 2012, just making the trip wasn't enough -- he wanted a championship. With a leap of 6 feet, 10 inches, he got his gold medal.
"It meant the world to me," he said. "That's the one accomplishment I didn't have yet. I had won the county and the Long Island [Elite Invitational]. The state championship was important."
McCann could almost feel the level of competition when he walked into Cornell's Barton Hall. "When you get to a state meet, everyone is capable of winning," he said. "Just being there elevates your performance. You have to go 100 percent. If you slip a little bit, you will not win. As an athlete, I live off those moments. Being in that type of environment is why I do the sport."
4 x 400 boys relay team
Elmont's Ayo Obadare briefly fell out of first place as he ran the anchor leg of the 4 x 400-meter relay. But he didn't panic; it was all part of the plan.
"I had just run the 300," Obadare said. "I had five minutes to rest before running the 4 x 400. It was really hard. I was tired. I gave the person behind me some time and then, at the end, I just beat him to finish the race. I had a winning mind-set."
Obadare, along with Roshane Wright, Brandon Atkins and Chad Barker won the event in 3:26.66.
"We were really focused," Atkins said. "We went to the state meet last year and only made the podium. This year, we were trying to take it all. It was very important for us to win because we had a very good season. We knew we could do it."
4 x 800 boys relay team
When Northport's James Dickinson grabbed the baton, he knew what he had to do. The 4 x 800 relay anchor had ground to make up. The Tigers' quartet of Dickinson, Mike Brannigan, David Hatch and Chris Odin were in the middle of the pack and in danger of missing out on a state title.
"I had three guys that got me into this position," Dickinson said of his thought process. "It was time to win the race."
Thanks to what Odin referred to as a "kick like no other," Dickinson turned a somewhat precarious situation into a state championship. As he moved up the pack, picking off opponents at will, his teammates watched in amazement. "It was incredible," Odin said. "I was a little worried when he got the baton, but I saw him close the gap and I knew we had the win." His leg helped Northport finish in 7:56.52.
Garden City I 600 meters
Seeing Garden City sophomore Emma Gallagher cross the finish line a winner in the 600 was hardly a surprise to anyone who kept tabs on the L.I. track and field scene this year. After all, she entered the race as the defending champion and owned the fastest 600 time in the nation this season.
But athletes as good as Gallagher don't take past results too seriously, no matter how impressive they are. Each race is a new chance to prove one's mettle against the best that day has to offer. Once again, Gallagher answered the call, winning the race in 1:33.17.
"Winning never gets old. It gets better every year," Gallagher said. "I knew how good it felt last year, so I knew I had to work even harder this year."
Conscious of her competition, Gallagher wasted no time taking the lead.
"It was a very strong field," she said. "I knew I had to take the race out fast."
Miller Place I 1,500 meters
Miller Place's Tiana Guevara is used to battles with Sabrina Southerland, a talented runner from Cardozo High School in Queens. So Guevara was hardly surprised when she found herself in an all-out fight to the finish with her friendly rival in the 1,500 meters.
While Sutherland won the overall race, Guevara took home the public school crown, finishing in 4:39.88.
"It was really fast and a little more aggressive than I'm used to," Guevara said of the race. "I'm not used to having to nudge and push. We jostled a lot. I'm surprised no one got bruised. We were really going at it."
As the two runners approached the finish line, Guevara let it all go, just looking for a title.
"I thought 'I have nothing to lose in this race, so I might as well go for it,' " she said. "I went for it and am very happy with the payoff."
Glenn I 1,500 walk
There came a time on that first Saturday in March when runners moved to the side and let walkers take center stage. As striders navigated the track, there were gritty expressions on their faces.
"It's extremely painful," Glenn's Alexa Kluepfel said. "It's awful, but I like winning."
The pain was worth it. Kluepfel, a junior, won the public school 1,500-meter walk championship in 7:06.26.
When asked whether she expected a victory at the championship meet, all Kluepfel could do was smile.
"No!" she said with an emphatic laugh. "I didn't even expect to go to states my junior year."
But she did -- walking a 6:51.07 at February's Suffolk State Qualifier, good for third.
Kluepfel was still in shock as she gathered her things in a secluded corner of Cornell's Barton Hall after winning the title.
"Here I am, a state champion," she said. "I can't believe it."
Valley Stream N. I long jump
For Valley Stream North's Anointing Onuoha, long jumping is a very personal endeavor. It's not as much about coming in first as it is about flying longer than she ever has before. The competition is almost secondary.
"I don't focus on winning. I focus on beating myself," Onuoha said. "I want to jump better than what I usually do. Entering the state meet, I just focused on getting a personal best. I didn't really care about winning. I think that helps me because I focus on myself and my jumping, not competing with others. That takes a lot of pressure off."
Onuoha's 18-31/4 inch jump not only marked a new personal best, it earned her a state title -- the first of her career.
"It was a shocker," she said. "I went into that meet hoping for a sixth-place medal. I really didn't believe I had a chance to win."
4 x 400 girls relay team
It wasn't enough for Emma Gallagher to win an individual title, she wanted to share that feeling with her teammates. That's what she had on her mind as she zipped around the Barton Hall track late in the meet.
Gallagher's 56.3-second anchor leg helped Garden City take the 4 x 400-meter relay title in 3:54.95. Joining her atop the podium were Katie O'Neill, Laura Jaeger and Kelly Lawkins.
Lawkins ran the third leg of the relay, setting up Gallagher for her final trot.
"I knew I had to fight to keep us up there so Emma could get the baton in a good position," Lawkins said.
According to Lawkins, the strength of the team is its tight knit nature.
"We have a love for the spot and for each other," she said. "That gives us the determination to leave everything we have on the track."