Pete Gonzalez sought some help becoming more explosive this spring, so the Central Catholic football standout decided to throw his hat in a different athletic ring.
“The explosive work you get from track is very good for football, so I figured why not give it a try,” said Gonzalez, ranked by some recruiting services as one of the top juniors in the state.
Talented football and basketball players also competing in track and field is nothing new. Many have gone on to win WPIAL titles over the years, and some even PIAA titles. This year’s crop of talent includes a few athletes who could compete for postseason gold medals, two of whom are making track debuts this season.
Count Daemar Kelly among those happy they gave track a shot. Kelly is a senior at Penn Hills and one of the WPIAL’s top basketball players. Kelly was a second-team all-state pick who led the Indians to the WPIAL Class 5A championship. He’ll play in college at Quinnipiac, a Division I school in Connecticut. With basketball teammate and close friend Julian Dugger also on the track team, Kelly opted to give the sport a shot.
“Just for something to do, to stay in shape for when I go up to college,” Kelly said. “This is my last time going around with Julian Dugger. I know I’m going to miss it, so I decided to do track just to stay with him and have fun. Give it one last go in high school.”
It turns out Kelly is a quick study. Despite having only a handful of meets under his belt, Kelly, who is 6 feet 5, soared a personal-best 6-3 to capture the high jump title at last Friday’s Baldwin Invitational, the largest regular-season invitational in Western Pennsylvania.
“I’m somewhat decent,” Kelly humbly said. “ I don’t think I’m good. Not yet. I’ll get there, though.”
Another one of the WPIAL’s top basketball players competed in the high jump at Baldwin, with Peters Township junior Jack Dunbar taking sixth place. Dunbar, who averaged 18 points a game in basketball, placed eighth in the high jump at last year’s WPIAL Class 3A championships.
A football star also walked out of Baldwin with a title last week, as Central Catholic sophomore Xxavier Thomas used a leap of 43-10½ to win the triple jump. Two weeks earlier, Thomas jumped a career-best 44-7 to capture the title at the Butler Invitational. Thomas, a two-year starter at cornerback at Central Catholic and one of the top sophomores in the state, has been doing track since he was 6 years old. He said his goal this season is to get to 46 feet.
“Track helps me a lot with getting faster, and it also makes me more explosive with my jumps and helps me be more explosive for football,” said Thomas, whose older brother, Rodney, also jumped at Central Catholic. He now plays in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts.
Dugger, a junior at Penn Hills, is a track veteran, as well. A standout quarterback with Division I offers, Dugger began competing in track when he was 9, three years after he began playing football. He said his reason for being involved has always been “to be better at football.” Dugger used a career-best leap of 21-9¼ to place fourth in the long jump at the Butler Invitational.
“It helps with speed and coordination, just acceleration and endurance so you don’t get tired,” said Dugger, who holds a football offer from Pitt. “It has a lot to do with football, so I do it to try to help.”
Dugger and Gonzalez have been two-sport athletes this spring, as both have been playing 7-on-7 football with Evolve while also trying to figure out where they will be attending college. Dugger has been to tournaments in Texas, Philadelphia and Las Vegas, and most recently competed in an Elite 11 regional camp in Ohio. Gonzalez attended the tournament in Texas. He mentioned Penn State, Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Miami being among his favorite colleges, and said he will probably make a decision late summer or early fall.
Gonzalez has quickly run to success on the track. He ran a personal-best 11.12 in the 100 in a preliminary heat at the Butler Invitational before finishing fourth in the final. Gonzalez had the top preliminary time at the Baldwin Invitational, but ended up finishing eighth in the final. The goal is to run sub-11, Gonzalez said. He said he has been clocked at 4.49 in the 40-yard dash.
“Honestly, I was expecting to run pretty well, but I’ve really exceeded my expectations,” he said. “It’s a different kind of speed on the track. You’ve got guys that train for it year round, so coming out I was really excited to run and see what I could do, and I’ve surprised myself.”
A few other WPIAL football standouts having lots of success in track have been North Allegheny junior Khiryn Boyd and Fort Cherry freshman Matt Sieg, both of whom are talented sprinters.
To those out there thinking about possibly adding track and field to their list of sports, Dugger has some advice.
“Just try it,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt you. All it’s going to do is help you, even if you’re not winning. It’s going to help with your other sports, so just try it.”
Gonzalez did just that this season, and said he hopes those who maybe are best known for their play in other sports decide to try out track, too.
“I would say that the work you get is a new type of workout,” he said. “It will help you in aspects of your sport you didn’t know you needed help in. The explosiveness you get from being in the box even, it’s something you can translate into sports of all kinds — basketball, football, baseball. And it doesn’t take that much time. Meets are maybe twice a week, practices aren’t too long, so it’s not too much time for a lot of reward.”