East Xtra: For Penn Hills senior, state track title makes up for pain of autumn failure
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Wil Bailey's senior year at Penn Hills High School began last fall with an apparently profound disappointment.
Failing to qualify for the PIAA cross country championships last October, though, proved to be just a slight stumble toward a magical finish for Bailey.
He won the PIAA Class AAA championship in the boys 800-meter run Saturday in the track and field state championships at Shippensburg University's Seth Grove Stadium.
Bailey broke away from North Allegheny's Vince Tonzo in the race's final 200 meters to win the state title with a time of 1 minute, 51.87 seconds. Cumberland Valley's Alec Kunzweiler was second in 1:53.14, and La Salle College's Andrew Stone was third in 1:53.53. Tonzo faded a bit and finished fifth in 1:54.03.
"It was all part of the plan," Bailey said jokingly of his failing to qualify for a state championship in cross country before taking a spot on the top of the podium with a gold medal around his neck.
He had concentrated on making the most of his final track season in what has become his best event.
His elation was almost dashed in the qualifying heat held on Friday when Bailey found himself in fifth place with time and yardage in short supply.
"He almost gave his father and me heart attacks," said Penn Hills track coach Lee Zelkowitz. "He was boxed in on the rail with 20 meters left. But he was able to get away from the rail and finished third in his heat."
Zelkowitz had a talk with Bailey before the championship race, letting it be known that getting "boxed in" was not an option. What Bailey came up with was perhaps the finest race of his high school career.
"He ran a beautiful start, stayed wide and went with [Tonzo]," Zelkowitz said. "I was concerned about a couple of other kids, but I knew that if Wil ran his race, no one would beat him."
Bailey cleared the first 400 meters in 55 seconds and came through 600 meters in 1:23.
"He can run 52 or 53 [on the first lap], but I knew that if he did that, he wouldn't have enough for the finish," Zelkowitz said. "When he got to 600 meters, he just went by Tonzo and separated from him. He ran a perfect slingshot and kept his form. He had just an unbelievable finish, two seconds ahead of the rest of the field. He just ran away from them."
Bailey was pleased that Tonzo was the athlete he'd be chasing as the championship race headed into its final stages.
"I'd studied him, and I know how he runs," he said. "I've run with him a few times, and we're both front runners.
"When I began my kick, he tried to retaliate. But I remembered what my dad [Wilbert Bailey] told me. He said that when you get to the last 100 meters, let no one pass you."
Bailey said he and his dad, who ran at Carrick High, had made great plans for what turned out to be a championship effort. When the senior Bailey went to a store on Sunday night, he wore his son's medal around his neck.
Wil Bailey got plenty of help from his Indians teammates, particularly 3,200-meter competitor Ryan Donnelly.
"We'd do a mile warmup, and we'd race that mile," Bailey said. "Then we'd go out on a 6-mile run, and we'd race that, too. We tried to see who had the bigger kick. Sometimes he'd get me, and sometimes I'd get him. It was a fun competition, and a lot of the credit for that gold medal goes to him."
Bailey is one of the few top track and field athletes who has not committed to a college or a university program.
That could change soon.
"I haven't committed to a college yet because we wanted to wait and see what would happen," he said. "The phone might start ringing soon."
First Published May 31, 2012 12:00 am