Track notes: Title a long time coming for Cheltenham

Posted: March 30, 2014

The 4x200-meter relay race and its ensuing aftermath provided emotional upheaval for the Cheltenham girls' team at the Pennsylvania Track & Field Coaches Association indoor state championships four weeks ago.

Cheltenham's relay team eventually won a gold medal and the team title with the race, but not without some controversy.

The quartet of Nicole Burke, Chanel Brissett, Ciara Leonard, and Katelyn Jackson thought it had both accolades under wraps when Jackson crossed at the front of the field, sealing a mark of 1 minute, 42 seconds and, for a moment, the state championship.

"We ran the race, and a win in that race would've given us the overall state title," coach Kelly Jensen said. "I was over by the awards stand when the race ended. I saw a lot of activity over by the judges table, and I knew it wasn't good."

What played out next was a nightmare scenario for a Cheltenham team that had finished as the state runner-up in the relay three times in four years.

The meet's line judge disqualified Burke, the first-leg runner, because the judge ruled that Burke had stepped on the outside line of Cheltenham's designated lane four consecutive times.

"According to the rule, a runner can run on the outside line like that as long as the runner doesn't impede the runner in the next lane, which [Burke] did not do," Jensen said.

"Our runners knew they had won the state title and it was taken away just like that, so they were all upset."

Jensen saw the video replay and appealed to the PTFCA on the grounds that Burke had legally run on the outside of her lane without impeding the runner. As per association rules, the video replay was owned by the PTFCA, which meant using the video for the argument was fair game.

The next morning, PTFCA president Ron Lopresti overturned the call, giving the relay win, team title, and all-state awards that go to the winning relay runners back to Cheltenham.

"Those were some of the happiest phone calls I've ever made, telling our runners that they were state champs," Jensen said. "I applaud Lopresti for having the guts to look at the film and reverse the call. He took a lot of heat after that."

After the quartet took third in the 4x200 at the New Balance Indoor Nationals on March 14 with a state-record time of 1:39.00, the relay and the rest of the team entered the spring season as outdoor state-title favorites.

National champs. Kevin James (1,200 meters), Isaiah Cooper (400), Nick Smart (800), and Nick Belfatto (1,600) - members of the Cardinal O'Hara distance medley relay team - ran the races of their lives at the right time.

Each runner broke a personal record in his relay leg at the New Balance national meet March 14, as the Lions' DMR team won the race in 10:00.75. That set a Catholic national and world record at the high school level, and it's also the second-fastest high school mark of all time, O'Hara coach Tom Kennedy said.

The runners ran respective times of 3:03.83, 51.72 seconds, 1:53.69, and 4:11.51 to take the gold medal.

"We've had a long tradition of good distance runners here, but this distance group as a trio of Smart, James and Belfatto is the best we've ever had in the school's history," Kennedy said.

Smart, a La Salle recruit, and Belfatto (American University) are seniors looking to end their careers with state and national titles this spring.

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