By ELLIOTT DENMAN
It was nitty-gritty time at the New Jersey State Meet of Champions.
A drama was raging at the high jump pit as Maggie Gilbertson of Howell High School went up and over at 5-8 on first attempt to seize the lead from Emily Kianka of Hopewell Valley, the solid pre-meet choice and the newly-crowned Eastern States champion just four days earlier.
The crowd gathered that Feb. 27 afternoon at the Bennett Athletic Complex in Toms River was getting into it. Coaches, teammates and fans of the two leading contenders were working into friendly frazzles.
"She (Kianka) had fire in her eyes, but I had my stomach in my mouth." said Hopewell Valley jumps coach Ben Samara.
Veteran Meet of Champions-goers knew that, with probably the best assemblage of female vertical leaping talent in the meet's history going at it, anything was likely to happen this Saturday at the "air bubble" facility that has been the principal home to the New Jersey high school track and field world since it went up three years ago.
Ten girls cleared 5-4 in the early going and six were still alive at 5-6, heading up to 5-8. The bar stayed up for Gilbertson at 5-8 but went down for Kianka's first attempt as the chatter of "upset in the making" made the rounds.
Hopewell coach Samara - who'd been a 6-6 jumper in his own days at The College of New Jersey - got thoroughly caught up in the nervous tension wafting around the Bennett Center.
As Kianka jogged over to the sidelines, after that first miss, to lean on Samara's expertise, she was slightly stunned to see Samara himself bent over the trackside railing.
"Look at me. What in the world is the matter with you?" she asked him.
Oh, it was nothing but nerves.
Well, Samara did gather himself on time to deliver just the nuggets of advice - "check your steps, attack the bar, get your arch" - that Kianka needed.
And, sure enough, Kianka kept her cool as so many around her were losing theirs.
She went over cleanly that second try at 5-8 and it was a whole new ballgame.
As four others went out, it was time to move it up to 5-10.
And, sure enough, all over again, Kianka cleared cleanly - "I popped right over" she said - while Gilbertson missed three times.
The gold medal - her third in these state finals; she'd won the Meet of Champions indoor and outdoors, too, as a junior - was assured and it was time to leap for the record book.
The all-time New Jersey indoor record of 6-0 was set by Tatiana Smolin of Randolph High back in 1985 and Kianka badly wanted to at least match that quarter-century-old standard.
When she soared 5-11 to win the Eastern States at The Armory Track Center on Feb. 23, she'd leaped into the national lead.
Jumping on home New Jersey turf the following Saturday, she'd hoped to add an inch to that New York mark, making her America's first 6-footer of the 2010 season.
But it wasn't to be, that day at the Bennett Center, after the nervous excitement of the early miss at 5-8.
"Two of my three attempts (at 6-0) were really good ones," she said. "The third one wasn't."
Still, the Meet of Champions performance was a superb display of clutch jumping, the final in-state indoor meet of her high school career, and one heck of a warmup heading into the Nike Indoor Nationals at Boston's Reggie Lewis Center.
All going well, Kianka will get a chance to jump against the rest of the nation's best in Beantown - and maybe just maybe - get that coveted 6-footer. Or maybe something better.
Three others have jumped 5-10 this year - Lacey Shuman of Maryland's Maryvale Prep; Amina Smith, another Marylander, of Patuxent High, and Moira Cronin, of Andover, Mass. Fourteen more leapers are bunched on the national charts at 5-8 or 5-8 1/4.
Her duel with Shuman at the Easterns, one of the nation's most history-laden meets now in its 73rd edition - was one to remember.
Both missed their first three cracks at 5-10, setting the stage for a jumpoff.
Both made 5-10 on fourth attempt, and now the bar went to 5-11.
"The atmopshere at the Easterns was tremendous," said Kianka. "After those first three misses (at 5-10), I still felt great. I got it all together and cleared (the jumpoff at 5-10) easily.
"Then, at 5-11, I had a great approach, and cleared again."
Shuman missed a moment later - and Kianka was both Eastern champion, all alone atop the national charts - and hugely happy.
Consistency has been her trademark all along - and it should be. After all, she's been high jumping since 7th grade.
It's been steady progress ever since.
Kianka leaped 5-0 as an 8th grader, 5-2 as a Hopewell Valley freshman, 5-6 1/2 as a sophomore, and 5-9 1/4 last year as a junior.
And she doesn't limit herself to the high jump pit.
"She's a real team athlete," exudes Hopewell Valley head coach Aaron Oldfield.
"In dual meets, and relay meets, she'll also do the long jump, the triple jump, the hurdles, the sprints, whatever it takes.
"She is so totally team oriented, and we're so fortunate to have her at our school."
Kianka heads to the University of Virginia this fall - Michigan State and Pittsburgh were other leading candidates - with plans to major in education and "maybe come back to be a coach."
Samara - whose Dad is Fred Samara, the veteran Princeton University head coach, a former National AAU decathlon champion, and 1976 USA Olympian at Montreal - has lived and breathed track and field most of his life.
The genes are obviously there in Ben.
He'd thought of going into the business world on his graduation from TCNJ - but leaped back into education, and the chance to coach, soon as he had the opportunity.
These days, he works as a school counselor in the Princeton Township public school district, then rushes over to Hopewell Valley, located in Pennington, to start his coaching day.
"I'm forever grateful to Coach Oldfield for the opportunity to coach here," he says. "He opened the door for me, and I just love to come here and coach."
Samara has an excellent jumping group to coach at Hopewell Valley. In addition to girls teammate Shayne Hughes, who has done 5-2, he has boys teammates Mike Cross and Evan McArthur, who're hovering in the 6-foot vicinity.
"Oh, and I've got a pretty good freshman coming along, too," he says.
"She's Meredith Meyer and she's right on pace to do some of the things Emily has done.
"Emily always shows such great leadership. She's already taking Meredith under her wing."
Through her junior year, Kianka also played varsity soccer and was a star forward for the Hopewell Valley team that shared its state group title with Northern Highlands.
A soccer injury last year, though, convinced her to stick to track and field.
"I ran right into the goal (post) one game," she said. "At first, I thought I'd broken my leg and ankle. But it turned out I was lucky. It was just a high and low sprain."
After sitting out three games, and some heavy-duty taping by the Hopewell Valley trainer, she got back into soccer action.
The lesson, however, was learned. She saw her athletic future, and it didn't involve that white and black-spotted ball.
A year ago, at Nike Indoor Nationals, she placed second in the high jump, and added another silver medal in the shuttle hurdles relay. At Nike Outdoor Nationals last June in Greensboro, NC, she placed fourth in the HJ.
"My goal has always been to clear 6 feet," she tells you. "I definitely think I can do it in Boston."
Then, of course, it's on to the great outdoors. The all-time New Jersey outdoor record is 5-11, and it's also Smolin's property. Put that one on the endangered list, too.