PORTAGE – Covenant Christian senior Gabbi Zeilenga slapped the pole vault pit and smiled after failing to clear 12 feet at the Portage girls track and field regional on her final try of a long, busy night. She didn’t need it. Her win was already secured.
“Happy frustration,” Zeilenga called it.
Zeilenga successfully surpassed 11 feet 3 inches to win her first regional pole vault title but wanted to get into the 12-foot bracket. She knows she’ll need it in the state meet if she wants to improve on her fourth-place finish from a year ago before heading off to Bethel to study and train with Olympic aspirations.
Zeilenga paired her win in the pole vault with victory in the long jump at 18 feet 1 inch. She hadn’t even realized she won the event until the meet was over because she was running back and forth between two opposite ends of the Indian football field to compete.
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The vault and long jump pair well together, Zeilenga said. The mechanics are similar. She has high hopes of medaling in both in Bloomington in a little more than a week at the IHSAA state finals. But Tuesday, she took some time to celebrate what she’d already done.
“I’m just happy to qualify and have a chance, happy to be healthy,” she said. “I’m definitely more confident than I was last year. I was seeded pretty low and didn’t go in with expectations but now I actually feel the pressure, which I like. I guess I’d say I’m confident but not satisfied.”
Zeilenga beat out Munster standout junior Kylee Marshall by just 2.5 inches in the long jump. Those two are likely to compete closely together again in state.
Marshall ran the 100 meters in 12.28 seconds and 200 meters in 25.29 seconds to pick up a pair of wins with times better than those she ran to finish 13th and 22nd in the state a year ago, respectively.
Marshall is no stranger to competing this time of year. This will be her third trip down to the finals.
“I had to learn the hard way that track is really just a mental sport,” Marshall said. “It’s obviously physical but if you don’t have a good mentality you won’t succeed the way you want to. Going into (state) I know what to expect. I just need to do what I know I can do.”
Lake Central junior Anastasia Thompson ran the 100 hurdles in 14.78 seconds to beat West Side’s Laya'Lapri Ratney by just 0.02 seconds in one of the closest contested races of the night. Thompson’s time was just 0.01 second off what she ran to a 12th-place finish in state as a sophomore.
Thompson then joined senior Kylie Klaich and juniors Krystian Dilosa and Jade Smedley in running the 4x100 meter relay in 48.47 seconds which was 0.56 seconds off last year’s LC team that finished third in the state. Smedley is the only newcomer to join that team.
Thompson went through a brief roller coaster of emotion immediately after the hurdles. The race was so close that she thought she lost until her coach assured her she won. Running with Ratney reminded Thompson of races with former Merrillville standout Taylor Jackson who won last year’s regional en route to taking second in the state.
“She was right on my tail,” Thompson said. “This is the first time I’ve ran against (Ratney) all season. I knew about her but I was trying to be mentally prepared for that because the rest of the season isn’t always the same competition. So I felt really discouraged early on and wasn’t running as good of times. I really needed another girl (like Jackson) to push me.”
Valparaiso won the team title with 129 points ahead of Lake Central and Munster. Viking junior Elizabeth Ehrhardt (1600 meters) and sophomore Ani Gilliana (800 meters) each picked up individual wins. Valpo’s 4x400 and 4x800 relays both took victories with times that project to be in medal contention in the state meet.
Munster senior Akaomachukwu Odeluga won both the shot put and discus. Portage sophomore Kylie Byrd won the 400 meter and Bishop Knoll senior Precious Knight took the high jump. All three athletes’ wins forecast to be competing for podium finishes in the state.