By Harold Raker
For The Daily Item
Races for division titles in the Heartland Athletic Conference will soon heat up, with some key dual meets on the schedule next week.
Coaches and athletes hope that the weather will do the same.
Even the teams with access to all-weather facilities have struggled to work out because of the cold, as well as the ice and snow.
“This is the worst (spring weather) since I moved to this area,” said Selinsgrove coach Ryan McGuire.
Joked Southern Columbia’s Lanny Connor, “I never knew that track was a winter sport.”
Things are so bad that McGuire hopes his stadium will be ready for the HAC-I home opener versus Shikellamy on Tuesday.
The sub-zero temperatures did more than dampen spirits. It resulted in frozen pipes and, as of mid-week, no running water was available in the restrooms and shower rooms at Harold L. Bolig Memorial Field.
But once things get back to normal for this time of year, track fans should be treated to some competitive meets.
The defending division (and District 4 Class AAA) champion Seals, despite losing several prospective returners for a variety of reasons, should be in good position to defend the title.
Then there is the big dog: Williamsport. With its advantage in attracting large numbers of talented athletes, is always one of the first teams mentioned by the division coaches as a top threat to win
Also expected to challenge is Lewisburg, which, despite being Class AA, seems to be able to match Selinsgrove in numbers, which translates into depth.
The Green Dragons and Seals will meet in Selinsgrove on April 22.
McGuire said he lost a lot of talent to graduation but is pleased with the athletes he has. “Our division is very challenging, very competitive, and I am anxious to see what we can do with them,” he said.
“Williamsport is always reloading; they seem to always have talent there. Lewisburg has some big numbers, and you can’t count other teams in the division out; there’s a lot of talent out there,” McGuire added.
Lewisburg coach Mark Sundberg needs to replace 20 graduates, but has 59 athletes on his roster.
Sundberg said in his preseason outlook that many of the younger athletes are hungry and, he hopes, will feed off the strong leadership of the returning veterans. If that happens, he believes the athletes will quickly gain the kind of experience needed to do well in the competitive HAC-I.
“Williamsport and Selinsgrove have to be considered the favorites,” he said. “We will have to be on our A-game for every meet, but I think we’ve shown we are capable of rising to that expectation.”
Sundberg added, “It is definitely going to be another exciting year for track and field in PHAC Division I and we fully expect to be right in the middle of all that excitement.”
Shikellamy coach Jim Bell, as always, said the team has a hopeful outlook for the season. He agreed that Williamsport, loaded with new and old talent, and Selinsgrove, with a solid nucleus and a great tradition, are again the teams to beat.
The Braves will be led by talented senior sprinter and hurdler Ryan Wary and should see improvement in the jumps with the return of senior Garrett Kemberling, who missed last season because of a football injury.
Shamokin was already inexperienced coming into the season, then lost standout sprinter and senior leader Danny Delbaugh for the season to knee surgery from a basketball injury.
“When Danny Delbaugh went down, that took away a big part of what we were going to do. Our focus was going to be all relays,” Indians coach Mike Rogers said. “Danny runs two relays, and we had some guys who didn’t come out for the team this year and that also hurts our relays.”
He said, “We’re taking guys who should have been running and learning and now have to be put to the forefront and that’s going to be a downfall for us. But, on the positive side, the guys who are here are working. We’re going to take our lumps but I think in the long run we’re going to be OK.”
Of the division, Rogers said all of the teams in the division have athletes, and even last-place Mifflinburg always comes up with guys who can score points.
“It’s not going to be easy for us. My expectations is that we grow one week to the next and get into districts and run our best times there,” he said.
Jersey Shore, once a perennial contender, fell off the pace the past two seasons.
But the Bulldogs have a solid group of returnees, led by talented three-sport athlete senior jumper Utoah Agae-Naipo.
Coach Sam Belle’s Millionaires are often an enigma, but more often than not, they have enough top-caliber athletes to win duals.
Top point-scores Weston Cuozzo (hurdles) and Chet Schwoyer (distance), both seniors, return.
As Rogers alluded to, Mifflinburg, although winless, also has potential to score enough points to make things interesting.
The Wildcats have three underclassmen that had outstanding 2013 seasons, led by junior Easton Plummer, the Valley’s top pole vaulter last year. Also returning are mid-distance, distance runner, junior Levi Ebersole, and sophomore distance standout Quincy Amabile.
This section should again produce a dogfight among defending champion Milton, Southern Columbia and Mount Carmel. The Tigers and Red Tornadoes open the HAC-II season Tuesday in the Silver Bowl.
Mount Carmel coach Mike Farronato may not field his best team until a few meets into the season. In addition he has some big shoes to fill by losing the bulk of his throwers and relay runners to graduation.
But the Red Tornadoes coach believes that no matter how the division shakes out, his group will again be strong, at least in the relays, before the season ends.
Southern Columbia has some state qualifiers and place-winners back, along with its head coach. Lanny Connor missed last season with health issues, but has returned at the helm of a program that has gone 55-3 the last five years, including a division title and back-to-back D4-AA crowns.
Among the top veterans returning is state medal-winner (hurdles) junior Luke Rarig.
“I think we have an interesting team in that we have really good top-caliber kids, but we have some new people out that are going to help us,” Connor said.
He believes his team is more suited to invitationals, but added, “I think we’ll have a competitive dual meet team. I have quite a few kids that can score big points in big meets.”
He said the biggest area hit by graduation was the sprinting, where they lost two of the top-five sprinters in the district in Joey Kleman and Bryce Parry, “and that’s a tough order to fill.’’
Milton was also hit hard by graduation, and another unbeaten season could be a challenge. Yet, there are plenty of potential points scorers left behind.
“We have a hard-working core of returning athletes and some young kids that we hope will develop,” Milton coach Tom Leeser said, noting that Southern Columbia and Mount Carmel return some of the top athletes in the division.
“I am looking forward to quality competition throughout our dual meet schedule and at our local invitationals,” Leeser added.
Danville was scheduled to open its season yesterday without having had an opportunity to practice outdoors, veteran coach Barry Seidel said.
Because of that, he said it would be hard to say how his team will respond. But he said that Milton and Mount Carmel should both be strong again.
The Ironmen have 16 seniors and, Seidel said, “We have good quality kids.”
Central Columbia coach Nate Johnson said one of the strengths of his team is a good group of athletes who are competing in multiple events. He also has a good core group of returnees.
But, he also said the Blue Jays are lacking depth on the track.
Midd-West continues to be at a disadvantage with numbers and lack of facilities but coach Jason Gemberling said, “This year, our team has more guys out than ever before, with some young talent to add to our veterans.
Like other teams, the weather has prevented the Mustangs from getting much practice outdoors. “We are hopeful to get a large number of guys qualified for districts with the hopes of advancing a couple to states,” he added.
Montoursville has a new coach in former girls coach Stan Burke, who replaces 32-year head coach Chris Bower. No information was available on the Warriors.
Warrior Run appears set to make a run at defending its title, shared with South Williamsport.
Warrior Run coach Shaun Landis said, “We are looking to build on last year. We are a very senior-oriented team and we will be relying heavily on these guys not only to score points but also and, maybe more importantly, to take the younger athletes under their wing and show them what it takes to be successful.”
But Landis has another goal in mind, besides defending the division title.
“We are hoping to break the streak of not getting a boy to the state championships,” he said. “Unfortunately we have not had a guy there the past two seasons.”
South Williamsport ended a string of several losing seasons with a break-through season, tying Warrior Run for the title.
One of the newer programs in District 4, Loyalsock is beginning to attract more athletes for first year coach Matt Hill.
No information was available for the other division teams: Bloomsburg, Montgomery and Hughesville.