Olivia Cieslak took the starting line in the 800 at the PIAA Championships Saturday afternoon focused on the task at hand but with plenty of knowledge stored in her mind.
The sophomore knew the kind of form she was in after starting the meet at Shippensburg by winning Friday’s 1,600. She knew that 10 points for winning the 800 would put Haverford in the driver’s seat of the race for the Class 3A team title. She knew what finishing second at states last year and second at the District 1 meet a week earlier felt like.
And when she broke the tape for her second individual gold of the meet, she also knew very well that a team trophy was coming back to Haverford with her.
Cieslak capped it by helping the Fords finish third in the 4 x 400 relay, the capstone on a sensational all-around performance. Haverford scored 51 points to take home the team crown in rampant fashion, 14 better than runner-up North Penn and 16 ahead of the team that denied them a district title, West Chester Rustin.
It took only 30 points to win the 2022 title, District 7’s Moon edging the Fords and State college by six points. So there was nothing but joy as Cieslak and her teammates got ready for the 4 x 400 relay to conclude the meet, an unassailable lead meaning the championship trophy all but buckled into the van headed back to Havertown.
“We weren’t super nervous. We wanted to leave it out there because we were all super tired,” Cieslak said Sunday. “We came in third, which was such a shock to us because there’s so many great teams out there. It was so exciting being able to do that for the team overall. It’s kind of just bringing it home because we knew the state title was ours.”
The states domination had many authors, of which the sophomore Cieslak was, granted, the most prolific. She won the 1,600, an event in which she finished 20th a year ago. That improvement and the knowledge that the 800 may be her more comfortable event – she was fourth as a freshman – had her riding a high into Saturday’s final.
She blew the field away, going 2:07.45 and besting the runner-up, Ella Woehlcke of Mount St. Joseph, by 1.81 seconds. No one else was under 2:10.
“I was really confident going into the 800 because that last lap in the 1600 (a 1:05) was so fast,” she said. “So I was really confident going into the 800 knowing that everyone wasn’t on fresh legs, that I wasn’t the only one. The goal was to put it all out there and go all out on the last lap.”
Cieslak is the first individual from Delco to win a PIAA track gold medal since Grace Forbes of Strath Haven in 2019 (also in the Class 3A 800). She’s the first Delco girl to win the 1,600 at states since Shannon Grady in 1993 and the first Haverford state champion, boy or girl, since Samantha Bates in 1991. Her two individual golds at the same state championships is the first for a Delco runner sine 2013 (Wellington Zaza of Garnet Valley) and the first for a girl since Chester’s Rayiana Johnson did the sprint double in 2009.
The team championship is the first for a Delco track and field squad since Strath Haven’s boys in 2012 and the first for a girls team since Haven in 2006.
Cieslak’s teammates made sure there were team-competition stakes to her races. Mollie Carpenter scored valuable points in the shot put by placing fifth. Sydney Jones cleared 5-6 to win a silver medal in the high jump. (Niya Jeffers of Chester won that event, helping the Clippers finish sixth as a team.) Aubrey Leneweaver tallied 13 points, finishing second in the 300 hurdles and fourth in the 100 hurdles.
Cieslak and Leneweaver underscored their value in the victory run that was the 4 x 400. The Fords were seventh when Cieslak took the baton from Riona O’Neill, Morgan Elliott having led off. They were fourth when Cieslak handed off to Leneweaver, who added the final twist of the knife by passing Rustin for third on the anchor leg, .63 seconds ahead.
Leneweaver, Carpenter and O’Neill were all in their last meets for the Fords. Cieslak was in part running for them, her understanding of how monumental a title this could be shaped by their experience of near-misses. It’s what helped to make it feel so special.
“It feels great,” she said. “I knew it was their last year, so that was another thing going into this whole meet. Knowing it’s my last meet running with them, I wanted to put it all out there partially for them because we knew we had a big chance for the team title.”