AUSTINTOWN - Four years ago, Jimmy Rumple never thought he'd be standing on the football field at Austintown Fitch High School in a black cap and gown in late May.
The recent Warren G. Harding graduate would think you were lying if you told him he'd be a heat away from qualifying for the state track meet, too.
"This was totally unexpected," Rumple said.
Tribune Chronicle / Matthew Peaslee
Warren G. Harding seniors, from left, Dalyn Gattison, Aminah Wesley, Jimmy Rumple and Zavien Bennett celebrate their graduation before the Division I regional track and field meet at Fitch Falcon Stadium.
Basically, Rumple, Zavien Bennett, Dalyn Gattison and Aminah Wesley were all living a dream on Wednesday. Instead of walking across the stage at school with hundreds of classmates and thousands packing the gym, the four Harding seniors had a special graduation ceremony at Fitch Falcon Stadium. After running their preliminary events in the Division I, Region I track meet, the Raiders sprinters were honored and presented their diplomas by Harding assistant principal Michelle Crawford.
"It's unique," Raiders track coach Charles Penny said. "I would love to have them graduating with their students, but it shows their character and what this track program means to them that they're able to kind of put away the normalcy of graduation and come here and to compete for a state title."
This is the first time in Penny's 10 years as head coach that such a ceremony was held.
"I knew this was going to be an issue back in January when I saw the dates lined up with graduation and regional track," he said. "Thanks to (Harding principal) Dante Capers and Fitch athletic director Rob Conklin, we got the ball rolling. The closer the meet got, we had meeting with the parents and everybody was on board."
Rumple, a four-year football player, didn't start track until his junior year. At the 2012 district meet, he pulled a quad while warming up for the 400-meter dash. This year he got his chance at redemption and he's not stopping there.
With a time of 3 minutes, 25.45 seconds in the 4x400 relay, a 42.57 in the 4x100 relay and a 50.51 in the open 400, Rumple is well-stocked for Friday's final heats. He also plans to run sprints in college.
"Track is my new love," Rumple said. "I'm really excited to keep pursuing it."
LeShun Daniels, an Iowa football recruit who did walk at Wednesday's formal graduation, Kevonte' Jordan, Bennett and Gattison are also part of the relays.
"We have some great chemistry; it's really magical," said Gattison, who plans to run at Youngstown State. "The past four years have really been a learning experience. I'm going to miss my team so much."
Bennett will run track at Brooklyn Acer College in the fall.
"I've been waiting for it for a while," he said. "I'm excited for it, but we still have work to get done."
Wesely, who ran a second-place time of 49.28 with Justice Richardson, Chyna Stroud and Gariana Bercheni in the 4x100, has qualified for regionals for the past four years and is aiming for her fourth trip to Columbus.
"It's definitely hard for me this year being the oldest," Wesley said. "I came up since freshman year with a lot of big shoes to fill. I missed the girls from the year before but you still have to do what you have to do.
"I knew track was a No. 1 priority when I came up here. We had a lot to accomplish and we're still accomplishing a lot."
She is running at Ursuline College and plans to major in nursing and medicine.
"Being near the Cleveland Clinic will be perfect for me," she said. "High School just went by so fast. It still hasn't hit me that I just graduated and, let alone, am a senior."
The Fitch girls team currently leads the meet with 18 points. Gabby Figueroa and Tradaiza Merchant placed second and third, respectively, in the shot put. Billy Price paced the Falcons with a throw of 187-11 to finish first in discus. They have 10 points, which is tied for second with Massillon Perry. Solon leads the boys with 41 points.
Howland's Brendan Cope placed third in the long jump with a jump of 21-06.5. The top four in each event advance to the state meet. Friday's events start at 5 p.m.