Zurich wins Loyalsock’s 1st gold medal since 1989

BRETT R. CROSSLEY/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Loyalsock’s Hailey Zurich competes in the long jump during the PIAA track and field championship at Seth Grove Stadium in Shippensburg on Friday.

SHIPPENSBURG — As she listened to the official read off her distance, Hailey Zurich quickly got excited. Just as quickly she calmed herself down.

Her 18-foot jump to that point was easily the best of the Class AA long jump at the PIAA track and field championships. But it was still early in the event and the Loyalsock senior didn’t want to get too excited.

That jump turned out to be the best of the event and there was plenty of reason for Zurich to celebrate. In an event which she had never been particularly serious about until six weeks ago, Zurich became the first Lancer girl to win a state track championship in 30 years Friday.

Her jump of 18 feet, 1 1/2 inches on her third attempt of the preliminary round made Zurich a state champion. Not since Jill McElhinny won the Class AA 800 in 1989 have the Lancers had a girl stand atop the podium at Shippensburg University’s Seth Grove Stadium.

And Zurich was joined on the podium by teammate Sophia Gardner, whose mark of 17-6 was good enough for fourth place.

Zurich and Gardner were the only two local athletes to earn a state medal on the first day of the state meet. Seventeen local athletes or relay teams did earn spots in either semifinals or finals of events on the track.

Lewisburg’s Zach Bedell and Williamsport’s Allen Taylor both guaranteed themselves medals in the 300 hurdles by qualifying for today’s finals in Class AA and AAA, respectively. Lewisburg’s Elena Malone will medal in the 400 after qualifying for the finals. The Lewisburg girls 1,600 relay will also earn a state medal as one of eight teams to qualify for the finals.

Zurich, who has previously won four state medals in the pole vault and the 400 relay, earned her first one in the long jump in her first trip to states in the event. And it wasn’t exactly something she expected.

“I’m shocked,” Zurich said. “When I popped that 18 and I heard my coaches in the background, I got more confident and I was able to relax. But you’re still riled up because you want to keep that spot.”

Zurich scratched on her final two attempts, but it didn’t particularly matter. She was the only jumper in the field to crack the 18-foot barrier. East Allegheny’s C-Keiyah Marshall and Penn Cambria’s Lyric Janosik both hit marks of 17-9 3/4 to finish second and third. But nobody found the strength to jump through a head wind and match Zurich’s distance.

Standing as close to the officials as she could, Zurich watched the final round of jumps intently waiting to see if anyone could surpass the leading jump she had put down. When Marshall’s final jump came up short of that mark, Zurich put her hands on her head in disbelief as she walked back to her mark to take one final attempt.

“I kind of came in with an open mind,” Zurich said. “I came in thinking this isn’t the ultimate end game for me. I wanted to keep that in mind and keep the pressure off and that allows you to do what you do best.”

“I’m so happy for her and she deserves,” said Gardner, who also ran the opening leg of Loyalsock’s 400 relay team which qualified for today’s final. “When I’m having trouble, she’s always there for me. And whenever I get in my own head, she makes me laugh and smile. We just have a good time together and I’m so happy for her.”

Zurich’s shock comes from the fact that the long jump isn’t even close to her signature event. Her goal this weekend was, first and foremost, to walk away with gold in the pole vault. It’s an event she’s previously medaled in three times and is the No. 2 seed going into this morning’s event.

But Zurich has proven herself to be dangerous in multiple events. She won four gold medals at last week’s District 4 meet, taking individual titles in the long jump, 100 and pole vault, and also running the second leg of the Lancers’ 400 relay. She decided to scratch from the 100 at the state meet because its semifinals would be run during the pole vault this morning.

In no reality, though, did she expect she’d come out of the long jump with the first gold medal of her career. Standing on the podium with Gardner was definitely the goal. But a year ago Zurich recorded her PR in the long jump at just 15-10 1/2, and even consistently making 15-foot jumps wasn’t a given.

But after adhering to a weight-lifting regimen coming to this season, Zurich has seen a vast improvement in every event in which she’s competed. She hit her PR in the long jump in mid-April at the Jim Taylor High School Classic at Susquehanna University, a 17-10 mark which left her in disbelief. She added a PR of 12.56 in the 100 that day, as well, before moving the mark even lower to 12.54 at the PHAC meet two weeks ago.

And Zurich enters this morning’s state pole vault competition a week after establishing her PR in her signature event at 12-6 1/2.

“The pole vault is the end game for me, and this is just the first step toward that,” Zurich said. “I’m more excited for it than I was before. I think this can take a weight off my shoulders and let me focus on having fun because if it worked (at the high jump), it’ll work (in the pole vault).”

Gardner was getting anxious early in the competition because she was having trouble getting her steps right to get on the board. She said Zurich helped her correct her steps and put her in position to hit her best jumps.

Gardner’s second preliminary jump of 17-3 1/4 got her into the finals. And her mark of 17-6 on the first jump of the finals cemented her spot in the Top 4. It was Gardner’s second career individual state medal. The sophomore also medaled in the long jump a year ago, taking eighth place.

“I felt a little bit better about myself once I got that 17-6 in there,” Gardner said. “I ended up jumping about average. I really wanted to hit 18, but it is what it is and I’m still happy with how I performed and how she performed.”