SHIPPENSBURG >> Just five minutes before it was time to check in, Jessica Brenfleck was a new addition to North Penn’s 4×400-meter relay.
She had never run the 4×4 before at states, and this one was for the team championship.
“I was so nervous just jogging down to the start, my heart was racing,” the senior said.
She had never run a 58 split. On Saturday she ran a 57, North Penn’s determination set in motion.
“After the 4×4, I was crying,” said her best friend, fellow sprinter and future teammate at Bloomsburg University, Kat Stevenson, “because that was the best race I’ve ever seen her run. She ran so well.”
Brenfleck pushed the Knights into the lead and then put the baton in good hands. Two-time 400 State Champion Uche Nwogwugwu raced the Knights home to victory in the final event of the day, wrapping up North Penn’s first team state title in 20 years.
“It’s really awesome. We’ve been together since freshman year, running all kinds of relays,” Brenfleck said of a distinguished senior class.
Brenfleck’s gutsy contribution fit perfectly for a day in which every kick, every stride, every handoff mattered big — the Knights outscored two-time defending state champion Cheltenham by half a point.
“To finally win a state title,” Brenfleck said, “to win it with (coach Richard) Swanker is pretty awesome.”
It all came down to the 4×4.
“Right before we ran the 4×4, (coach Swanker) told us if we win this, we have it,” said senior Mikaela Vlasic, who ran a strong first leg to put the Knights in position, with Natalie Kwortnik moving NP further along. “(Jess) did really well under pressure. When she handed the baton off in first place, that’s when I knew she had it.”
Nwogwugwu crossed the line in 3 minutes, 46.13 seconds, as NP held off second-place Cheltenham (3:49.88) down the stretch. Only fitting it should come down to the Knights and Panthers.
“The seniors have been trailing Cheltenham for a long time,” Swanker said of the pursuit of the top team spot in Class 3A. “We’ve been behind them every year for three years. We could just never get past them. It’s amazing that we competed so unbelievably, Everything that we could do, we did.”
North Penn bookended the meet with gold medals in the 4×8 and 4×4 relays. Nwogwugwu won the 400, Vlasic silvered in the 800. The 4×1 team raced to a bronze, Stevenson earned a sixth-place medal in the 200, and Nwogwugwu leapt to a fifth in the triple.
“It feels good because everyone can say they contributed something,” Vlasic said.
“Anything different would have changed the outcome,” said Nwogwugwu.
Nwogwugwu won three gold medals at Shipp, including her title defense in the 400 (53.80).
“That was a race. I knew it was gonna be a race,” said the senior with a smile.
She pulled away from competition that included Avonworth’s Hunter Robinson and Cheltenham’s Alexis Crosby.
“They all went out really fast. They were in front of me the first 150 so I knew it would come down to the last 100 meters,” Nwogwugwu said. “I just tried to not give up on the curve and finish the race.”
State title dreams began early on Saturday.
The North Penn 4×8 team defended its title of a year ago, a team of Jenna Webb, Nwogwugwu, Ariana Gardizy and Vlasic winning in dominant fashion, going 9:02.65.
And that time was well-earned, not coming without bumps and possibly bruises.
“At around the 500-meter mark,” Webb said of the first leg, “everyone was so close together that somebody knocked somebody’s elbow and I got hit in the throat with a baton, so it kind of knocked the wind out of me, but I realized I still had to go.”
Webb had the Knights near the front and then Nwogwugwu pushed NP into the lead. Gardizy made sure the Knights stayed there.
“I was really looking forward to today to make up for districts because last week I had a fever, and so I was just waiting for that to leave me,” said Gardizy. “It was on Tuesday where I was definitely feeling good. All I was worried about was getting Mikaela the baton in first.
“The person behind is usually faster at a 400 than I am. I wanted to maintain what I could and then once they close in on me, usually I just try to stay ahead but usually they end up passing me for a little bit. It happened again last year too. I waited for a second, stuck with (Strath Haven), and then just pulled off. It’s the best, to go out at the end of our season with a state championship.”
And that was just the beginning.
North Penn would claim its first team title since 1997. “Titanic” was in theatres, 28K modems were taking forever, and North Penn competed in what was called the SOL National Patriot Division, its biggest rival that year Truman High School.
This squad set some sparkling-new standards.
“Probably the best,” Swanker said of this group, one he described as very, very multi-talented. “We broke all the school records…”
It was an overwhelming, collective effort, one that brought their coach to tears.
“It hit me hard,” said Swanker, who has guided both the boys (2002) and girls squads to state titles. “I just got off the phone with my wife so I finally came back.”
“This is the best feeling in the entire world,” Stevenson said. “I probably have not stopped smiling.”
Brenfleck, Stevenson, Kwortnik and Sophia Broadhurst teamed up for the bronze in the 4×1 and then Stevenson went on to get the Knights three crucial points in the 200.
With Stevenson feeling some chest burns, Brenfleck would fill in on the 4×4.
“I knew I had to leave everything on the track because this is my last race. I just had to give it my all,” Brenfleck said. “That last 100, I just said ‘I gotta pass (Upper Darby) and give the baton to Uche in first.’”
The points were soon added up and North Penn was handed the team trophy, making for a nice celebration for the team and everyone dressed in blue.
Said Stevenson: “My mom and dad split the days to come watch and I’m pretty sure she’s way happier to have come Saturday than Friday.”
The Central Bucks West boys 4×8 not only raced to a gold but a gold standard: their time of 7:40.14 is best in the nation. “We’ve been looking for this all year and we always felt we had a shot,” Bucks senior Alec Hofer said of the title. “I don’t think it was until the Penn Relays that we really started putting it together. For me it’s amazing because I hadn’t had the greatest season up until a month ago, when I finally started dropping time.
“All this week, we were looking at everybody’s times and trying to figure out how we were gonna put it together.”
On being the foursome’s lone senior, Hofer said: “I just wanted to walk off into the sunset after a good win. I can’t give enough credit to my great teammates over there. I have no doubt they’re gonna come back and win it again next year. This is the first time I’ve run here and it’s amazing. I didn’t even get to enjoy it though because I had to watch Jake run against one of the top 800 runners in the state.”
That would be Jake Claricurzio, who held off State College’s Nick Feffer.
“The second I got the baton, I just felt all the adrenaline go through me,” Claricurzio said. “I felt almost like I was bubbling with adrenaline. I knew I had Feffer on me so I was just running to stay in front. I knew if it came down to me and him with the kick, I wanted it.
“Every race is a lesson. When I can run those open 800’s against guys like (Pennridge’s) Austin (Howell) and (Quakertown’s) Hudson (Delisle), where it’s a big kick at the end, it’s setting me all up for something like this. The only difference is I have three other guys who I’m trying not to let down.”
Brian Baker led off, followed by Luke Fehrman, Hofer and Claricurzio.
“I knew what I had to do after last year,” Fehrman said of the Bucks’ bronze medal in 2016. “We weren’t upset but we knew we could do better. Training with all the guys, I think we came into this season confident we could run something crazy.
“It’s a fast track and I’ve run PR’s here both years. Everybody’s right near each other, friendly competition, especially all the District One teams (including third-place Pennridge and fourth-place NP) in that race. That’s testament to how good our district is and how good our conference is.”
Said Baker of the team’s future: “It’s a really great feeling. It’s like, ‘what can we do next?’”
Upper Dublin’s Madison Langley-Walker had herself a day, earning a bronze in the 100 hurdles (13.98), silver in the long jump (18-6.75) and a gold in the 300 hurdles (42.54).
“I came here, made a big PR. I was a little nervous because I was running against Yasmine Brooks (of Susquehanna), the defending state champ, but as I was getting into the rhythm of the 300 hurdles, I felt like I had it,” Langley-Walker said. “I started picking up speed. (Winning a state title) feels really good. Hopefully I can come back and do it again.”
In Class AA, Dock’s Austin Kratz completed a spectacular season, earning himself a silver in the 100 dash.
“I love Shipp. It’s probably my favorite track to run on. Most of my PR’s are here. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are here,” the junior said. “I’ve always felt that when I come on this track, I can run a really good time. I just feel smooth every time I run here.”
It took a state-record performance (10.47) by Bloomsburg’s Jahvel Hemphill to keep Kratz from getting the gold.
“I looked at him and he was so happy and I said ‘great job.’ I said ‘did you see the time?’ I said ‘congratulations, man, great job on those four years and getting that state record,’” Kratz said. “I was so happy for him. Maybe next year I can get the record.”
Plymouth-Whitemarsh’s Taylor O’Brien raced to third in the 300 hurdles (43.89) and also got second in the high jump (5-5); Souderton Area’s Stephen Scott was a bronze medalist in the 300 hurdles (38.29); teammate Connor McMenamin raced to a fourth-place medal (9:06.37) in a tight 3,200 race; La Salle’s day included a gold from Jonathon Squadrito in the high jump (6-6), a bronze from Noah Walker in the javelin (195-0) and a fifth place from Alex Sislo in the long jump (22-2.5); and CB West, North Penn, Pennridge went three-five-six in the boys 4×4.
The other three team titles went to Neumann Goretti (2A girls), Hickory (2A boys) and Carlisle (3A boys).