Howell, PHS duo win Group titles

Qualifiers looking for best at MOC

By: Justin Feil
   After reaching the Meet of Champions last year, Sammy Howell made a move this winter to ensure she would be back for years to come.
   The West Windsor-Plainsboro South sophomore, who grew up playing basketball, opted instead for indoor track and field.
   "I figured I had a better future in track," said Howell, the Pirates’ top high jumper.
   She has made that decision look like the right one as she made it 3-for-3 in Meet of Champions appearances. Howell, who placed eighth at the Indoor MOC four months ago, will return for her second straight Outdoor MOC after winning the Group IV state championship Saturday in Egg Harbor Township with a personal record of 5-feet-4. She was the lone Group IV competitor to clear 5-4 to advance to Wednesday’s Meet of Champions that will be held at South Plainfield High’s Frank Jost Field.
   Howell will have plenty of company from Packet-area competitors, including two others who captured state Group titles. Princeton High’s Libby Bliss won the Group III 800 meters in a blistering personal record of 2:11.78, while the Little Tigers’ Natalie Gengel was content to move on after winning the pole vault with a clearance of 11-feet, which was a foot better than her closest competitor Saturday. PHS finished seventh as a team as the 4×400 relay of Elesha Casimir, Olivia Johnston, Hannah Davis and Bliss was third in a school-record 3:59.63.
   "We’re looking to win," said Casimir, the lone senior on the relay. "We really want to win. We’re really looking forward to the challenge."
   PHS’ Kelly Curtis tied for sixth in the high jump at 5-2, and she and Megan Wiseman advanced as wild cards in the long jump. Holland Thomas will be West Windsor-Plainsboro North’s lone representative after finishing second in the 100 hurdles at the Group III meet.
   "Considering the weather, I did OK," Thomas said. "I don’t think anybody did all that great. I’m actually doing a lot better now than I did in indoors. I think I’m seeded a lot higher.
   "It’s going to be hard," she added of the MOC. "I know I’m probably not going to win. I want to at least get a medal and maybe get top 3."
   Kelly Meier is Montgomery High’s only athlete to reach the MOC after she placed sixth in the Group III pole vault at 9-6.
   In addition to Howell, the Pirates advanced Katie Kellner and Lauren LaDolcetta out of the Group IV state meet and finished 15th as a team. Kellner was the top freshman, fifth overall, in the 3200 in 11:18.45 and LaDolcetta was tied for sixth in the pole vault at 10-6. LaDolcetta and Howell are making their second straight appearances. Winning her first crown was the icing on the cake for Howell.
   "It was really exciting," she said. "I kind of expected that I’d jump well (Saturday). I kept looking better and better in practice."
   Howell has made a habit of doing her best at the end of the season. Last year, she climbed to a then-personal record of 5-2 to place second in sectionals. She cleared 5-feet at the MOC to finish in the Top 20, one of just three freshmen to do so. She did the same in the winter, coming up with her best jumps at the end of the season.
   "She did well at the Meet of Champions Indoor," said Pirates head coach Todd Smith. "I think she cleared 5-2. A week later at Easterns, she cleared 5-4. She does tend to show up on the championship meets. Her steps were feeling good and her arch was pretty good. It was a good day for her."
   Howell is hoping that trend continues at the MOC, as she shoots for 5-feet-6 and a medal.
   "I have no idea why it happens at the end of the season," Howell said. "I guess all my hard work pays off then."
   Howell climbed from 5-2 at sectionals the week before to 5-4. She felt better prepared to handle a second straight week of rainy weather as she jumped Saturday.
   "At sectionals," Howell said, "it was hard because it was raining and my spikes weren’t that good. I had new spikes in (for Groups). I just said, I’m not going to slip and lose an attempt.
   "I was excited with the rain. Last year at Groups it was raining and I only had to jump 5-feet to make Meet of Champs. My main thing was to get to the Meet of Champions. I didn’t think I was going to win at all."
   Howell’s confidence grew through the Group IV meet. By the end, she was the only one to reach the 5-4 mark.
   "My first jump over 5-feet was pretty good," she said. "The official said I was over by 4 inches. I missed 5-2 and started getting a little nervous. You always get a little nervous when you have a miss."
   Howell knows how much one miss can mean. She was eighth at the indoors, but could have been as high as fifth if she had cleared 5-2 on her second attempt. She is going into the Meet of Champions feeling much more confident than she did last year. She has last year’s experience as well as the indoor season’s strong finish to fall back on in the heat of the contest.
   "Last year, I was scared to death," Howell said. "This year, I’m going in with a better attitude and can maybe do well and place. I looked at the results. If I jump 5-4, I think I can get top 6. I’m aiming for 5-6. I’m excited for the Meet of Champs."
   The Pirates are excited to see how well Howell can do after making a bigger commitment to track. That commitment paid off with a return to the MOC after one of her best days ever.
   "She’s been flirting with 5-2 and 5-4," Smith said. "High jump is one of those events that’s so technical. There are so many things you have to do right. Our high jump coach said she was in the zone. He didn’t let anyone talk to her. I think she can go higher given the right conditions.
   "She’s almost made for the high jump. She’s got tall legs and she’s tall and slender and she’s flexible."
   Thomas seems made for the hurdles with the speed and strength to compete in any race. She finished seventh in the hurdles at the indoor MOC and would like to do even better Wednesday. In the Group III final Saturday, she lost to Janee Sharper of Woodrow Wilson, who she raced against in the indoor MOC. They’ll get to square off again Wednesday.
   "I kind of know a lot of people making it," Thomas said. "It’s pretty much the same group. I looked at the performance list and we have almost the same time. We were only a tenth of a second apart.
   "We were really close. She had a good start and she just held it the whole race. I was happy, but I wish I had a 1."
   While Thomas and Howell are two of the competitors that have a chance to return next year, Casimir is looking for a grand exit. It was three years ago when she was the lone freshman on a Little Tigers mile relay that finished 15th at the MOC.
   "It definitely feels different because I’m a senior," Casimir said. "I feel a little more experienced and a little less nervous. I know more what I’m doing. I’m excited it’s one of my last meets. I’ve worked hard these last four years. I’m ready for a break."
   Casimir is the only senior on the Little Tigers’ mile relay, which has a representative of every class. Davis is a freshman, Johnston is a sophomore and Bliss is a junior. PHS leads off with its most experienced runner, Casimir, and finishes with its speedster Bliss.
   "I like being first," Casimir said. "I think the pressure for me is good. I hand off to Olivia the sophomore, who hands off to Hannah who gives it to Bliss."
   Bliss proved Saturday just how much speed she has as she overtook the favorite, Renee Tomlin of Ocean City. It was the second straight week in which Bliss has run a personal record and her teammates were impressed.
   "Oh, my goodness," Casimir said. "It was amazing. I was cheering so loud for her."