Cheltenham overcomes obstacles to claim District 1-AAA title

CALN — All eyes were locked on John Lewis.

As the gifted Cheltenham senior came started the second lap of the 800m final Saturday, the PA announcer read his current time, which put Lewis on pace to break the district record. So, as Lewis went around again, a chorus of shouts, cheers and applause grew, getting louder down the final stretch.

Lewis crossed the line in first and he broke the record. But John Lewis didn’t hear any of it.

“I just zone out,’ Lewis said. “It’s always been like that. The only people I really hear is my coach and my dad sometimes screaming.’

Lewis’ sensational run was just one of numerous standout efforts by the Cheltenham boys track and field meet in the Disitrict 1 Class AAA Track and Field Championships Saturday at Coatesville High School. It wasn’t easy, and the Panthers needed the full team’s effort, but they won their second straight district title to cap off a fast weekend.

“We hit a lot of adversity and I’ll tell you, I got a few more gray hairs,’ Cheltenham coach Dr. Robert Beale said. “I always tell the kids it’s not what happens to you in a situation or in life but how you react to it.’

Cheltenham’s bid for a repeat was nearly wiped out before Saturday’s afternoon session began. If one thing has plagued the Panthers this year, it’s a habit of self-destructing and leaving points on the board. Thursday, the Cheltenham 4x100m relay, the top-ranked team in the state, had a runner run out of his zone in preliminaries, disqualifying them from the rest of the competition.

Saturday, the team’s 3200m relay had its quest for a gold medal go down 200 meters in. The leadoff runner stumbled and fell, leaving the Panthers with two relay teams unable to finish. It’s no guarantee either team would have won, but in the end, it was up to 20 points left for other teams to snare.

“It’s another 10-point deficit,’ Beale said. “I’m not sure we would have won it, but I think we at least would have placed. Now that’s 16 to 20 points we’re in deficit. The kids were highly upset but I am so proud of this bunch, they really displayed character. Tony Dungy’s saying is don’t panic, stay the course and do what we do and these kids, they did exactly that.’

So, the rest of the team stepped up. Sprinter Christian Brissett won the 100 and came in second in the 200, spending his day waging an entertaining battle with Downingtown East’s Dan Chisnea. Brissett has also been dealing with a nagging hip injury, but he said it felt much better than it did a week ago at the SOL championships.

Brissett welcomed the competition with Chisnea and said it was motivation to go even faster next week at states. He has some big goals for himself at Shippensburg, but Saturday, his focus was on the repeat.

“We had a lot of ups-and-downs,’ Brissett said. “A lot of things have been down but we can bring it together and still win a title.’

In the 100 final, Brissett beat Chinsnea by the slimmest of margins, 10.91 to 10.91. The 200 finals weren’t that close, but Chisnea still needed a huge close to top Brissett 21.66 to 21.75.

Senior Saahir Bethea continued to be an unsung hero for Cheltenham. A part of the team’s winning 1600m relay along with seniors Lewis, Kyle Davis and Cordell Richardson, Bethea also picked up some clutch points in the jumps.

Bethea’s top jump in the long jump measured 24-03, just 1.75 off the district record and good enough to set a new school record, per Beale. Richard Abram Austin also gave the team so pivotal points in the long jump. Seeded ninth, he placed second with a 21-11.5 to give the Panthers a 1-2 finish in the event.

Bethea also took third in Thursday’s triple jump, overcoming a fouled attempt on his first jump to post a 44-05.5.

Richardson also helped the cause with some key points. Lewis, who is also a standout 300 meter hurdler, did not run that event due to it being scheduled right before the 800. In stepped Richardson, who took fourth, matching his fourth-place finish in the 110 meter hurdle final earlier in the afternoon.

“We had a huge performance from our long jumpers,’ Beale said. “John Lewis came back with that huge performance. I heard the crowd gasp when he dropped the 1:49.15. It was fast.’

Lewis didn’t step onto the track Saturday attempting to break any records. But once he heard the loudspeaker read the old district record of 1:50.92, he knew he had a shot at it.

Lewis said his goal was to set the tempo and he did that with a quick start. As soon as the starter’s gun went off, the senior was in his zone and totally locked in. He blazed around the track twice, finishing in 1:49.15 though the unofficial time was a bit faster.

Once Lewis got the official word he was the new record holder, most everyone that walked by him offered up some form of congratulations.

“It feels amazing because I set a one-second PR,’ Lewis said. “My old PR was 1:50.00 so it feels good that I’m out here doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, that I’m doing everything right and it’s starting early. Last year when I ran a 1:50.0, it was at the end of the summer.’

“We try to give him race strategy but I told him go out and run the way you’ve been running,’ Beale said. “He runs aggressive up front and he likes for his opponents to try and catch them.’

This year, very few have been able to catch up to the Clemson-bound Lewis.

Now, the Panthers will head to Shippensburg with eyes on one more prize in a state team title. If Saturday proved anything, it’s that this group has the make-up to go and get it.

“These guys showed a lot of character,’ Beale said. “We’re happy and we’re going to celebrate. It was a tough win, but wins like this, you grow.’

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