WEST MIFFLIN – South Fayette junior Mitch Valko is not ready to celebrate a first-place finish in the 110-meter hurdles at the WPIAL Class AAA Southern Qualifiers.
Valko, who finished fourth in the event at the WPIAL Individual Championships as a sophomore, critiqued his performance following Tuesday’s meet at West Mifflin High School. Despite a time of 14.69 to qualify for the WPIAL Individual Championships for the second straight year, Valko went down a checklist of what went wrong.
“I have to work on bringing my lead leg down and I have to be quicker between the hurdles, if I want to qualify for states,” Valko said. “I started pretty good, but I got lazy between the hurdles.”
If Valko deemed his performance Tuesday as “lazy,” his competitors would surely like to avoid the hurdler in top form next Thursday at Baldwin High School. The junior also qualified in the 300 hurdles with a fifth-place finish and a time of 41.38.
Valko’s perfectionist approach to his craft began with missing his goal of qualifying for states last May.
When his time of 14.71 at last year’s WPIAL Championships had him miss a trip to Shippensburg, Valko approached South Fayette head coach Joe Winans to discuss hurdles and asked if there were any coaches in the area who could offer pointers.
He did not stop there. Valko began discussing technique with his fellow competitors. He wanted to absorb every bit of information to use to his advantage.
The systematic approach led to a personal record (14.47) in the preliminary round at last week’s Baldwin Invitational. Though Valko fell during the finals, Winans has noticed the strides Valko has made since the feeling of defeat struck last May.
“It’s been interesting to watch him develop into the athlete he has become,” Winans said. “He’s always been talented, but he has really become a student of the sport. He wants to take in as much information as he can. He’ll talk to anyone to gain an advantage.”
While the athletes at Tuesday’s qualifying meet had grown accustomed to running in frigid temperatures, sunny skies and 70-degree weather greeted them when qualifiers began. Distance runners had to make an adjustment, but Valko loved every minute of his time at West Mifflin.
“This is an awesome meet and the hurdles are the most exciting events of them all,” Valko said. “This is one of the better track meets because you have to attack the hurdles with the competition you face.”
A few of South Fayette’s athletes joining Valko at the WPIAL Championships will be Aaron Gaunt in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, George Slater in the 400 and both Ryan Lerda and Pat Brady in the 1,600.
Canon-McMillan junior Riley Leisman experienced the same heartache as Valko when she finished third at last year’s WPIAL meet in the 100-meter dash. Leisman went as far as quitting soccer to join the cross country team.
She often found herself in last place during cross country season, but she did not find herself lagging behind the competition when she qualified by finishing third in the 100 with a time of 13.13 – 0.01 seconds behind Olivia Airhart of Thomas Jefferson. She also qualified for the 200 by grabbing seventh place (26.62) and was a member of Canon-McMillan’s first place 400-meter relay team.
“After last year, it was all about getting back here and qualifying,” Leisman said. “My start was very weak today with the strong winds and I was too slow on my first few steps.”
Canon-McMillan senior Alec Rideout, who became the talk of the WPIAL after throwing more than 185 feet in the discus at the Washington-Greene County Coaches’ Track Meet, did not disappoint when as he placed first in the discus (168-4) and first in the shot put (57-11 3/4).
“My goal was to stay at the top with the best, and I got some solid flight today,” Rideout said. “It’s always good to throw with the competition to see where I stand. I’m just ready for the championships.”