WILKES-BARRE — Brandon Hampton thought his track and field career was over when he graduated from Pittston Area High School.
Hampton was headed to King’s College, a school that didn’t offer him the opportunity to participate in his favorite sport. His courses would be relegated to college classrooms, not those that covered a timed distance.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I thought I was done, for sure.”
Turns out, Hampton was on a path to get something started.
That’s because, for the first time in school history, King’s College sanctioned a track and field team to compete in the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) indoor and outdoor seasons and represent the school in league and invitational events.
And the program is off to a flying start.
“Oh, it’s fun,” said freshman Michael Havrilla, a distance runner who competed for Pittston Area through his high school career. “I like it. I wasn’t going out if I went to a bigger school. I’m glad I did. Plus, there’s a nice team atmosphere.”
That 31-member indoor team has already qualified nine athletes for the MAC track and field championships at Lehigh University this weekend, including former Holy Redeemer standout Marissa Durako — a junior who spent her first two seasons at King’s turning to the school’s cross country team to fulfill her craving for running.
It also boasts Jill Korgeski, a freshman from Dunmore High School with the nation’s third-best shot put sling of 12.61 meters who also specializes in weight throw and has been named MAC women’s track and field athlete of the week three times this season.
“It’s been going good, real good so far,” said Pete Lombardo, a King’s College freshman middle distance runner and jumper who competed last season with Hazleton Area High School. “It’s cool to be a part of it.”
The program has been a long time in the making.
Forever, in fact, as far as Mike Kalinovsky is concerned.
The Dunmore native and 200 King’s College grad is the school’s track and field coach and also coaches the Monarchs’ cross country teams.
He remembers talking about King’s developing a track program as far back as his senior year in college. For one reason or another, the school’s administration didn’t develop the idea, Kalinovsky said, as a few of his past proposals to begin a program were shot down.
“It was a little delay,” said King’s athletic director Cheryl Ish. “We didn’t have plans for track. We wanted to make sure we had the right facilities for it. It’s not a unilateral decision to add a varsity sport. And a lot of things had to be put in place.”
The idea to incorporate track and field into the King’s athletic programs not only dragged, it seemed stalled.
Until last year.
Kalinovsky received word from the King’s administration asking him to update his proposal to field a track and field team. He did. And the college’s board of directors passed the motion last April 9.
“We’ve been working at this for a very long time,” Kalinovsky said. “Every year, I would feel it was getting closer. And the last few years, it was that feeling, ‘Is this ever going to happen?’
“It’s been worth the wait.”
Ellen Kuzma didn’t wait long.
A freshman sprinter from Tunkhannock High School, Kuzma set the school record for the women’s 60-meter dash in her first college race, and later set school marks in the 55-meter dash and the high jump.
Fellow freshman Lombardo set the standard for the men’s 400-meter run, the high jump and long jump, while Havrilla holds the best King’s times for the 3,000-meter run and the mile.
Meanwhile, among the upperclassmen at King’s, Durako’s MAC qualifying time of 18:12.33 came in the 5,000-meter (5K) run. It ranks 41st nationally among Division III programs and second among MAC runners in the event. And Hampton set the school standard in the men’s 800-meter run and the 1,000-meter run.
“I thought it would be just cross country for me now,” Durako said. “When I heard we might have a track team, I was excited to see what I could do. I didn’t know what to expect, since I haven’t been on a track in so long. I was pretty happy with my performance, and excited.”
Of course, this inaugural season of track and field at King’s will be filled with record-breaking performances.
“Hopefully, we can break those records in the future,” Kalinovsky said. “So it’s always something for them to strive for.”
It’s an opportunity King’s athletes didn’t have in the past.
Sure, the school had a cross country team. But that didn’t offer short or mid-distance runners, jumpers and throwers a chance to test their specialty skills in competition.
And King’s did field a club team that showed up for more than a decade to represent King’s at various meets and in the MAC championship field. But those past members of the Monarchs weren’t eligible to win any titles, or for that matter, any league races without becoming sanctioned by the school.
And Kalinovsky is certain he lost recruits – all potential students at King’s – because of it.
“Absolutely,” Kalinovsky said. “When you recruit kids who are talented — a great cross country runner who also runs track — they’re not going to come here if they want to compete at the highest level.”
And since Division III college programs don’t offer athletic scholarships, most competitive track and field athletes at that level might prefer performing for a league team instead of a club team.
“When you have great performances at the club level, it’s not recognized,” Kalinovsky said. “You might have these great athletes running track who aren’t recognized. We want the recognition for them.”
Kuzma didn’t go to King’s for the recognition.
Like most of her teammates, she went to King’s for studies. But she longed to run and wasn’t certain she’d get a chance to when she applied for acceptance at King’s.
“I’d heard about it, that there was talk of a team starting up this year,” Kuzma said. “I wasn’t sure. I decided to take the chance and hope for the best.”
The best for King’s may be yet to come, as the team’s underclassmen continue to grow and more talent arrives in the program for future seasons. But for the outgoing runners at King’s, the timing of the college’s first track and field team seems perfect.
“It’s nice we can qualify for MACs now,” said Tyler Baran, a fifth-year senior at King’s who was a member of the school’s club team for a couple of seasons after running high school track for Pittston Area. “It’s nice to be recognized. I’m more excited than anything. I feel like we have a lot to prove this year.
“And I’m having a great time.”
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski