SHIPPENSBURG >> North Penn’s Uche Nwogwugwu took on the toughest competition, on the toughest day, in one of the toughest races, and came out a champion.
“You can’t let the pressure get to you,” said the junior, a state champion indoors and a favorite to do it in the spring. “If you go in as a top seed, you know you have a target on your back.
“You can’t let the pressure get to you. You just gotta run through it — especially the 400. It’s a sprint and at the end, give it all you got.”
Nwogwugwu took the lead on the final turn and pulled away to her first outdoor state title in the 400 dash Saturday afternoon at Shippensburg University.
Nwogwugwu’s state title followed up the gold-medal performance by the Lady Knights’ 4×800-meter relay earlier in the day, as North Penn earned a third-place tie — out of 79 schools — in the Class AAA team standings.
The Christopher Dock boys, led by Austin Kratz’s gold-medal time in the 200 dash, earned third in Class AA and Pennridge freshman Kouri Peace also made her way to the top of the medal stand, capturing the gold in the Class AAA 200.
In the 400, Nwogwugwu took the lead with about 200 meters to go, passing Cheltenham’s splendid sophomore, Alexis Crosby, and staying in first for good.
“That’s the toughest part of the race for me,” Nwogwugwu said. “I had to get off that turn strong.”
In a tremendous field, places one through eight were just 22 hundredths of a second apart.
They battled each other, along with 90-degree heat at race time.
“It was so hot when I got down into the set — the ground was burning,” Nwogwugwu said. “I wanted to get out of the blocks as fast as possible. It was hot but the wind felt really good on the home stretch.”
That made it two gold medals on the day for North Penn, along with the 4×8, a team that Nwogwugwu had contributed to throughout the season.
Speaking of the Lady Knights’ two state titles, Nwogwugwu said: “It feels really good. I’m just really glad that we all pushed ourselves really hard. As a team, we all put it together where it counts.”
North Penn’s foursome of Jenna Webb, Phoebe Clowser, Ariana Gardizy and Mikaela Vlasic ran the fastest time in the state this spring, winning the gold in 8:59.56.
“It’s so surreal,” said Clowser, who got the baton with the Lady Knights in fifth and pushed them into the lead. “I’m so ecstatic.”
Webb, just a freshman, ran a tremendous leadoff leg, putting North Penn right in the thick of things. Clowser, like she had done all throughout her North Penn career, put the Lady Knights ahead, and Gardizy — with persistence — made sure they were still in the lead when she handed off the baton.
Early on in the third leg, Wilson bolted out in front.
“That was not a good feeling. In the first 150, I was not expecting that,” Gardizy said. “I knew (their No. 3) was really fast and a really good 400 runner. So I was expecting it more near the one-lap mark.
“My coaches were helping me out, telling me she takes it out fast and that I should run my own race and see what I had left at the end.”
What the sophomore had left was pretty amazing.
“I don’t even know what happened,” Gardizy said, smiling afterwards. “I was expecting (Wilson’s girl) to battle me at the end, but it was almost like I just went.”
Gardizy pulled ahead and had the Lady Knights on the doorstep of a state title. Vlasic not only hammered it home, she opened up ground, enabling North Penn to win the race by almost 10 seconds. Wilson was next fastest with a 9:09.26.
“Getting the baton in first place for the last leg is kind of scary, because you’re the only one left. If you get passed, that’s the end of the race,” Vlasic said. “And I like chasing. I knew I just had to run scared the whole time, knowing she was coming up on me.”
That particular foursome ran together for the first time at the Suburban One League Continental Conference Championships. The Lady Knights were sixth in the 4×8 a year ago and champions — by an impressive margin — in 2016.
“I feel like we have so much versatility within our 400 and 800 runners that we can really do anything,” Clowser said.
It was quite a weekend for Kratz, who earned four medals for Christopher Dock, including a gold (200), silver (100) and bronze (long jump).
“One of every kind,” said his 4×4 teammate, Josh Wolfe, with a smile. “Collect them all.”
Kratz wasn’t far off the state record in the 200, crossing in 21.85.
“It’s a great feeling to know that I was able to get that,” the sophomore said of the gold. “And to know that I’m also so young, that I still have two more years to be able to do it.
“And to know that I was able to come out against the best athletes in the state and be able to do that, it just felt great.”
Kratz also joined Wolfe, Joe Thompson and Ian Anderson to earn an eighth-place finish in the 4×4, as the Pioneers went all the way from a 21 seed to a spot on the medal stand.
Shortly after Kratz’s win in the 200, Peace followed that up with a win in the AAA girls race.
“It was really a great feeling to be able to get a gold medal in that race,” Peace said. “With it being my favorite event to run, I was really proud and happy to get the gold.”
To win it, Peace had to out-perform the state record holder in the event, senior Dasia Pressley of Pennsbury.
Displaying poise far beyond that of a freshman, Peace sprinted to a 23.76 finish, crossing ahead of her rival from the Falcons (24.03).
Adding to the silver medal she earned earlier in the day in the 100, along with a fifth-place medal as a member of the 4×1, Peace has already established quite a legacy at Shipp.
With it being her first state competition, Peace was asked if she felt any jitters walking up to the starting line.
“Oh there’s always jitters,” she said. “Running against record holder Dasia Presley, that gives you jitters. You know she’s right there. You’re like ‘I gotta keep going.’”
Her pursuit for another gold has already begun.
“Just work hard,” she said of her plans for offseason. “Practice with my coach — my dad, who is here supporting me along with my little twin sisters and my mom. And my other sister would be here but she’s at a soccer tournament that I’m going to go to (Sunday).”
Team titles went to Hickory (AA) and Cheltenham (AAA) on the girls side, and Schuylkill Valley (AA) and State College (AAA) on the boys side.