(DHI Media)
(DHI Media)

VAN WERT — Van Wert’s Austin Clay, Kirsten Clay, Caylee Phillips, Blake Henry, and Jill Gemmer will reach every high school track and field athlete’s dream this weekend — a spot in the OHSAA Championships at the Ohio State University’s Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. The Cougars compete in Division II.

It will be the last rodeo for seniors Austin Clay and Henry, but Kirsten Clay, Phillips, and Gemmer are juniors so could possibly get another shot in 2020.

The top eight finishers in each event earn a much-coveted spot on the awards podium, and, of course, there’s no higher honor in high school track and field than the very top of that podium.

After surviving the immense pressure at regional, as coach Mark Collins says, “It’s a one-day thing. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done previously — it’s what you do that day. Sometimes kids just over-achieve. If things just click that one time… just pop one, you’re good!”

The Clays’ father, Brian Clay, was a state runner-up in the shot put at Van Wert in 1986.

Following is a summary of each athlete’s events.

Girls Discus — Friday, May 31, 9:30 A.M.

Kirsten Clay — junior

Kirsten Clay is the 2019 WBL discus champion (136’0), and she finished second at both the district (135’4) and regional (135’11).

Three of this Friday’s 16 competitors, led by Salem senior Caitlyn Marx’s 142’9, had better regional efforts than Clay’s 135’11, but that’s just a one-day snapshot and may not be indicative of what will happen this weekend.

Four of the 16, including Marx but not including Clay, competed at state last year; none of those four finished in the top eight. Last year’s top eight finishers all graduated.

Clay’s personal best is 140’10. The school record, set by Gemmer earlier this year, is 142’2.

“She works at it year around,” says Collins. “She’s a very dedicated hard worker. It’s the only sport she does. Discus is highly technical, so it takes awhile to figure it all out so you become consistent. Kirsten has become very consistent.”

Boys Shot Put — Friday, May 31, 9:30 A.M.

Austin Clay — senior

Austin Clay is the VWHS school record holder (59’2) and is the 2019 champion at the WBL (58’07.75), district (56’06.50), and regional (56’09.50).

Two of this Friday’s 16 competitors had better regional efforts than Clay’s 56’09.50. Those include last year’s state champion, senior Cole LaRoche of Bellaire, who threw 58’00.50 at the regional and threw over 61 feet earlier this year. Four of the 16, including Clay (15th, 47’09.00) and LaRoche (1st, 55’11.00), competed at state last year, but LaRoche was the only one of those four to reach the podium.

Clay has consistently been over 55 feet this year, a distance which should put him on the podium, but not where he wants to be — on the very top.

Boys High Jump — Saturday, June 1, 9:30 A.M.

Blake Henry — senior

Henry was the WBL champ (6’3), district champ (6’2), and regional runner-up (6’5, his all-time PR). The school record of 6’7 was set by Steve Connor in the mid-1970’s.

Two of this Saturday’s 16 qualifiers went higher at regionals than Henry’s 6’5. Those include the defending state champion, senior Uriah Schwemley of Shelby, who jumped 6’7 at regionals and junior Robie Glass of Springfield Shawnee, who went 6’8 while jumping against Henry at the Piqua regional.

Glass is a unique athlete, having also qualified in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter dashes. It’s uncertain which of the four events he will actually participate in — and how that choice will affect him in the high jump.

Four of this year’s qualifiers, not including Henry, competed at the state meet last year, including LaRoche (1st, 6’6), Glass (3rd, 6’5), senior Michael Snyder of Gates Mills Hawken (8th, 6’4), and senior Joseph Clifford of New Concord John Glenn (11th, 6’0).

“Some years 6’4 or 6’5 wins; some years 7’0 wins,” says Collins. “It’s a one-day thing — it’s hard to tell. He (Henry) has podium potential though, definitely.”

Jumps coach Nate Hoverman isn’t concerned about the mental aspect. “I’m not worried, because Blake has the perfect temperament for a high jumper,” says Hoverman. “Nothing bothers him. I think he’ll just take it as another track meet. It’s incredible! Every jump, I’m more nervous than he is. He just lets it roll.”

Girls Shot Put — Saturday, June 1, 9:30 A.M.

Kirsten Clay and Jill Gemmer, juniors

Clay finished 1st at WBL (40’05.00), 3rd at district (38’10.00), and second at regional (39’01.00). Gemmer was 2nd at WBL (39’04.25), 1st at district (40’09.50), and 1st at regional (39’05.00). Obviously, the two are evenly matched, and both could compete for a spot on the podium.

Three of this Saturday’s 16 qualifiers topped the 40-foot mark at last week’s regionals, led by senior Ashton Warner of Gnadenhutten Indian Valley who threw 42’06.50. Three of the 16, not including Clay, competed at state last year, led by Warner who finished 8th with a toss of 39’06.50. Gemmer competed for Delphos St. Johns in Division III last year and got on the podium with an 8th-place toss of 38’02.50.

Two of the 16 qualifiers have been over 43 feet this year. Gemmer’s PR is 41’07.50. Clay’s is 40’05.00. Although it’s somewhat unpredictable, historically, a throw of 39 feet will earn a spot on the podium, per Collins.

“They (Gemmer and Clay) are really good friends,” says Collins. “They cheer for each other. The order switched around frequently (in 2019). As long as we got first and second, we don’t care how it shakes out.”

Girls 800-Meter Run — Saturday, June 1, 2:30 P.M.

Caylee Phillips — junior

Phillips improved steadily during the post-season — 3rd at WBL (2:27.57), 1st at district (2:20.01), and 1st at regional (2:17.15, VWHS record).

There is terrific competition in this event — six of the 16 qualifiers were there last year, led by the defending champion, junior Catherine Coffey of Chagrin Falls. However, Coffey is not one of the three runners to go faster at regionals than Phillips’ 2:17.15. By far the fastest regional time was the 2:14.44 by senior Makenna Heimlich of Shelby.

In addition to Coffey, another returnee is sophomore Ella Gilson of Gates Mills Hawken, who was second at state in 2018 with a 2:16.07 and ran a 2:16.43 in last week’s regional. Coffey and Gilson are the only returnees who stood on the podium last year.

Phillips is unique. She has excelled at every distance from 100 meters to cross country’s 5000 meters (3.1 miles).

“She was a sprinter for the majority of the season,” said Collins. “She had a successful cross country season, but what she’s running now is basically on sprint training. As we’ve progressed through the season, it’s become more and more obvious that the 800 — and maybe the 1600 next year — will be her strong suits. She’s our best runner by far — sprinter through two-miler.”

“I think Caylee can go faster than 2:17 when she gets caught up in it,” added Collins. “If she gets out with ‘em and puts herself in position, that’s the whole key for her, because her leg speed coming down the home stretch is, I think, superior to everybody else’s. At this level, though, she can’t just sit back and spot ‘em 20 meters and think she’s gonna catch up. She has to get out with them.”