SHIPPENSBURG - Early and often.
Annville-Cleona's Alena Gardyan got things hopping on the second morning of the 88th District Three Track and Field Championships - and the rest of Lebanon County's representatives followed suit at Shippensburg's Seth Grove Stadium.
Gardyan started Saturday's slate by claiming the Class AA girls' 300 hurdles, and her gold-medal effort proved to be contagious. The county captured six events - seven if you count in Palmyra senior Connor Strynkowski's victorious 3200 gallop on Friday.
Other first-place finishers included Palmyra pole-vaulter Shawn Mayer, Elco miler Drew Gerberich and A-C's 400-meter specialist Ben Mason.
Palmyra's triumphant 3200 quartet consisted of Maria Tukis, Devin Strynkowski, Olivia Farabaugh and Katie Dembrowski. The A-C crew was comprised of Mason, Mark Bachman, Phil Corle and Shawn Wolfe. Both teams relied on comebacks from their respective anchors, and both teams will be back at Shippensburg next weekend for the PIAA venue.
"I'm not really sure (where we rank in the state), but no matter what, we're going to go in with an open mind," said Tukis. "As long as we stick together and run our race, we'll be fine."
For the Gardyan, a 2011-12 foreign exchange student from Hamburg, Germany, the "team" concept over there is almost as alien as 80-degree days.
"There are so many more people, and the events are bigger, it's way more cool here," said Gardyan, headed home in July. "I don't want to go back. ... In Germany, it's more like a singles sport. I'm in a club because we don't have it at school. Here it's more about the team, and the relays. We never had enough people."
Seeded first in the 300 hurdles, Gardyan clocked a 46.13 to blow away the 9 a.m. field by a full second.
The county's second gold medal came courtesy of another No. 1 seed in the Cougar relay. After breaking a school and stadium record at the Mid-Penn Conference Championships last week, the orange and black improved their time to 9:25.17, or two seconds better than AAA runner-up Hempfield.
A-C's 3200 boys followed in the next race to make it back-to-back county golds. The Dutchmen boys appeared to be out of it, until monster legs by three-man Mason and anchorman Wolfe led to an 8:08.80 finish to edge Boiling Springs.
"The 800 is a run, but it feels like a sprint, especially (in the relay)," said Mason, a junior. "You know you're not running for yourself, you're running for the team. And when you see like five people in front you - like I saw - I felt like I had to catch them. I felt like I could not move any faster."
Mason continued his big day in the afternoon by defending his 400 dash title from last spring, crossing in 50.11. He also needed a late rally in that race to reel in Upper Dauphin's Morgan Smeltz.
"I don't know if I didn't go out well or not, but that kid, I did not expect him to be that far in front," added Mason. "But when I got around to the front, I knew I had a pretty good kick, and I was catching up to him. I thought I could probably. It was tough, a lot tougher than last year.
In the pole vault, Mayer also repeated as the champion in Class AAA. The senior cleared 15 feet to settle a tiebreaker between him and silver medalist Jared Allison of Dallastown. The pit also featured three other area vaulters in Cougar Tim Moses (third), and Northern Lebanon's Brian Boltz (fifth) and Derek DiAngelis.
"I won it last year, and coming back and not winning it looks a little bad," said Mayer, who cleared 15-7 at the Mid-Penn meet last Saturday. "But I had it in my mind before I got to the track that I wanted to win this. I wanted to come home with a district medal in my hand."
So did Gerberich, who improved his personal-best mile time to 4:16.54 by nipping Big Spring's Vinny Todaro at the line in Saturday's most dramatic conclusion. Gerberich, the county-meet mile record holder at 4:19, trailed the entire race. He used a gut-wrenching effort to knock off the favorite.
"I just wanted to qualify (for states), so the first two laps I stayed in the top five," Gerberich said between deep breathes. "I felt OK the third lap, so I went into second, and the last 200, I was like why not just go for it. ... When I came around the 100 and I was only a second or two back, I knew I could get him. But if he would have extended the lead (on the backstretch), I probably wouldn't have went for him."
Other top-three finishers included A-C's Tricia Light in the 100 hurdles (silver), Gerberich in the 800 (bronze) and Elco's Nate Litschi in the 110 hurdles (bronze). In addition, several other county athletes qualified for the PIAA meet. Check Monday's edition for more on this weekend's District Track and Field Championships.