SHIPPENSBURG - Mifflin County is sending a big contingent to the PIAA Class AAA track and field championships, which begin Friday at Shippensburg University's Seth Grove Stadium.
The challenge will be bigger. Only one of the Huskies, distance runner Jon Colwell, is seeded into a likely advancement spot - that would get him to the finals in the 1,600-meter run - and a trio of entries are below the state qualifying standard, getting into the meet as district champions without hitting that benchmark.
Mifflin County coach Scott Gantz is realistic. And a little more than hopeful.
"Our approach going into the state meet is that we did not want to sugar coat anything. These kids are smart enough to realize that this is the best of the best in the entire state of Pennsylvania," he said. "They also know that they absolutely belong in this elite group and they are 10 of the best. They have been working very hard to get to this point."
Gantz isn't worried about where his kids are on the performance list - and there's no reason to think he isn't right. He's correct in his assessment that some of the top seeds will not live up to their marks. It's true that lower-seeded athletes often shine in this environment, winning medals they were not expected to win.
"We all feel that we have yet to see the best that they have to offer and we are going down there with every intention of medaling," he said. "This is a sport where emotions play a big role. If you have learned how to focus and channel that nervous energy you have half of the battle won."
The effort that started in the winter's indoor season, worked its way through the weight room and past some of the strongest teams in the state both in the Mid-Penn Conference and the District 6 Class AAA meet comes to a head Friday.
"These kids are battle-tested and we have all of the confidence in the world in them," Gantz said. "This is why we do what we do throughout the season. The hard part is over, now comes the fun."
Leading the pack - at least in terms of events entered - is Ian McGinnis, who won the 100- and 200-meter dashes in the district meet, and anchored the winning 4x100-meter relay. Gantz said unlike his distance runner - Colwell won two races in Altoona, but scratched out of the 3,200 for states - there was never a question that McGinnis would run all three.
"It never crossed our minds. He is up for the challenge and ready to compete," Gantz said. "The relay team has been working on handoffs, making minor adjustments to our exchange zones, simply trying to milk every 10th of a second that we can out of it. In a game where hundreths of seconds can make a difference we need to be dead on and simply hope that we have done everything to perfection."
Colwell is in his third state event this year, and already medaled at the state level in indoor. His dominant effort in the mile made it an obvious choice as the race to run here.
"This is the culmination of four years of hard work, dedication, fighting through injuries and sacrifice," Gantz said, made harder by the fact that Colwell was tasked with upholding a family tradition. "Jon has shouldered the burden of lofty expectations from many throughout his career and handled them in a way that has made us all extremely proud.
"He will need to focus on his preliminary run Friday doing just enough to make it through to Saturday's finals. On Saturday it will be a totally different story, full-bore and running for a place in Mifflin County history."
McGinnis is joined by Tim Beck, Michael Kline and Nathan Baumgardner in the relay, a quartet that looks to stay in the meet for the second day. Gantz praised Baumgardner - who missed a qualifying spot in his main event, the hurdles - as setting the standard for the foursome.
"Three years ago, you were talking about a skinny little runt that could barely clear a hurdle and that was with us lifting him over it," Gantz jokes. "Hard work and countless hours on the track - that is why he is getting the opportunity to compete at Shippensburg this weekend. He has to be one of the most dedicated individuals we have ever had on the team."
The girls have two individual entries, including the only field contestant among the group - sophomore Makala Rearick, who won the district shot put with a state qualifying number.
"This will be an experience that she never will forget but we have been telling her, 'Why not make it a little more special and bring home some hardware?,'" Gantz asks. "I don't think she comprehends how good she can really be."
Megan Becker put on a burst to advance in the 400, then helped the 4x400 relay team qualify, too.
"She is just a very versatile and gifted athlete. As far as track and field is concerned, we could have used her anywhere from the 100-meter dash up to and including the 3,200-meter run," Gantz said. "I would like to think that she is not finished with track and field, after states, because I think that there is still quite a bit left in the tank, and someone would be getting a good one."
Becker accepted a swimming scholarship from Mansfield University.
Ahead of her in the relay are Erika Shawver, Kezia Loht and Elisabeth Eddy. The grouping, which changed through the season, always seemed to be missing something, Gantz said.
"We were always right on the verge of popping the big one but seemed to be lacking the right combination," he said. "Toward the end of the season we had what we felt were the best four girls, in the best possible order, to produce the best results and that is what they proved at districts.
"Not beating State College stung a little bit but to qualify on time and to live to fight another day is what their ultimate goal was. Looking at states, to go under four minutes and show some of the non-believers that they are legit would be more than we could ever ask of them."