By Pete Chiodo
Herald Sports Editor
When it comes to style, Titusville’s Frank Barger and Kaleb Sopher are strikingly different athletes.
Take Barger. The Rockets senior, even in an event as herky-jerky as the hurdles, is downright fluid when everything is going right. He makes all those carefully timed strides and occasional leaps look like an almost natural gait.
Then there’s the junior Sopher, who is one of the more violent runners you’ll come across — face balled up with effort, arms chopping the wind away from him, cleats stomping the track beneath him. It’s like he’s powered down the lane by spite.
The thing is, while their styles may contrast vividly, the two Rockets have been able to employ them toward the same lofty ends.
This past Saturday, both athletes climbed to the very top of the medal stand at the District 10 Class 2A track & field championships. Barger was the gold medal winner in the 110-meter high hurdles. Sopher was the district’s best in the 100-meter dash.
Furthermore, their respective efforts earned them spots in the PIAA track & field championships. The Class 2A meet will be held on Friday at Shippensburg University’s Seth Grove Stadium.
Sopher qualified in the 100 dash. He won the district final in 11.31 seconds and is seeded 13th at states.
Barger — just two months after qualifying for the state swimming championships in two individual events and winning a state medal in a relay — made it to the final track contest of the year in both the 110 and 300 hurdles.
Barger is seeded all the way up in fifth for the 110 with his district-winning time of 11:31.
In the 300, he’s seeded 22nd with a time of 43.27 and a surprising second-place finish in the D-10 race.
“Honestly, I did not think I was going to get second,” Barger said.
That brings us to the one other thing that Barger and Sopher have in common: They were both able to dig deep within their own particular techniques to overcome some tough challenges at districts.
This doesn’t quite apply to Barger’s run in the 110 hurdles. He led that one front-to-back.
The 300 is a different story, however. And the challenge comes after Barger makes the turn and is about to take on the final 100-meter stretch, but he hits a hurdle with his knee.
“And (the hurdle) flew from my lane to lane six,” said Barger.
The lead runners in the race started to leave him behind.
“After I hit it, I stumbled, then I recovered, and I looked up to see where I was in relation to the next hurdle,” said Barger. “And I went over it and I could see a few people ahead of me. And I just put my head down and ran.”
From the perspective of Titusville boys coach Brent Henderson: “Frank might have been in fourth place. Then all of these guys started hitting hurdles. He was in fourth place coming to the last hurdle. And that hurdle is just 10 meters from the finish line. And two guys hit that hurdle.”
Meanwhile, Barger’s got his head down. He’s flowing over the obstacles.
“I honestly thought that it was going to be more kids in front of me,” he said, “and I was digging to try and beat them. But then everybody started dropping.
“I was running through it, finished, turned around and saw I got second. And I was like, ‘Really?!’ I was shocked.”
Sopher had a similar come-from-behind tale in the 100 sprint.
And it begins with a notoriously slow start.
“I’ve always been slow off the blocks,” said Sopher. “It’s a lot to do with how I drive my arm. That, and I’m scared of a false start, of DQ’ing. So I play it conservative. Because if you DQ you get nothing.”
Sopher would frequently come from behind to win races during the regular season.
But this was districts. These are the fastest kids in five counties. Would that still work here?
“It’s a short race to gain a lot of ground,” he said. “If you’re very far behind it’s hard to get back in that race.”
The gun went off. Sopher made his first move.
“There were eight guys in the race,” he said. “And I was staring at seven guys’ backs out of the blocks. I was the other one.”
So, Barger starts pitching his 100-meter-long fit.
“There wasn’t a lot of thinking,” he said. “I heard the gun. I saw the rest of the guys. I just knew I had to dig down and find it.”
He found it.
“After about 50 meters I always get a short burst of energy and it brings me right back in the pack.”
He joined the rest of the runners. They then came to the finish line.
“It was a hard race,” he said. “I only won by (six) hundredths of a second. That’s not many. That’s not even a quarter of a stride. That’s a dip of my head. I always dip my head at the finish line.”
Sopher had thundered his way to gold medal by a nose.
He and Barger would soon be heading to states. Different styles. Same destination.
“You know what’s funny, my parents had their hotel (at Shippensburg) registered as soon as I stepped on the podium,” said Sopher. “That’s when their transaction went through.”
Notes: The PIAA meet will be different this year due to COVID-19 precautions. The meet used to feature Class 2A and Class 3A events back-to-back. However, this year all 2A events will take place on Friday, while all 3A events will happen on Saturday. … The PIAA also eliminated a stage from its short-distance competitions. The preliminaries used to be held on Fridays, followed by semifinals and finals on Saturday. But with just one day of competition, the PIAA will instead just conduct its preliminaries in the morning, skip the semifinals, and just move the top eight to the finals in the afternoon. … It’s projected to be cool and wet in Shippensburg on Friday — high of 67 degrees, low of 50 with a chance of rain over 80 percent.