Faith and strong senior leadership carried the Cheltenham girls' track and field team to another historic season.
This spring, the Lady Panthers captured an unprecedented sixth straight District 1 Class 3A track and field championship. No other program — boys or girls — has ever won even five in a row.
Seniors Alexis Crosby (Syracuse), Ni'Asia Williams (Cheyney), Lydia Gorman (South Carolina), Arianna Wallace (La Salle), Brielle Lewis (Fordham), and MaryGrace Rittler (Dartmouth) used their experience to lead by example.
"The seniors really took ownership of the team," said head coach Jerome Lowery, who guided the Imhotep Charter track and field program for three years before taking over at Cheltenham this year. "They're the ones that really kept the team in line."
Juniors Bria Barnes and Ciani Fleming; sophomores Brianna Smith, Janelle Williams, Chinyelu Ojukwu and Ahliyah Allen; and freshmen Aaliyah Brown, and Anjola Adebgite rounded out a faith-driven roster.
The bond over faith has formed over the years with many of the girls attending the same church. Prior to races and meets, a good majority of the girls would gather together to pray that the result will be favorable due to their hard work and dedication to each other.
"Six district championships means that hard work pays off, and that you can truly do anything you put your mind to," said Crosby. "Faith plays the biggest role for me. It pushes me to get through the hard times and realize all my abilities come from God."
Lowery was a world-class sprinter and Philadelphia native who starred at West Catholic, Father Judge and the University of Pittsburgh before embarking on a two-year professional career. He trained with Team USA as one of the nation's best 400-meter hurdlers. In fact, he was a member of the 4×400-meter relay team at Pitt that ran a world-leading time back in 2012.
Upon his arrival at Cheltenham, Lowery's main goal was to continue the team culture. Kelly Jensen, who had coached the Panthers for 10 years, started the tradition and legacy of what is now known as "Cheltenham."
"I always talk [to the girls] about the dedication and hard work of the girls that came before them," said Lowery.
Chanel Brissett played a key role in putting Cheltenham track and field on the map. She was one of the nation's top high school runners before graduating in 2017. Now, Brissett is making a name for herself as a member of the University of Southern California track and field team.
Relays played a big part in Cheltenham's gold-medal performance at this year's District 1 meet at Coatesville. Despite slick conditions, the Panthers recorded 66 points to beat out North Penn (53 points), Coatesville (47 points), Central Bucks West (39), and Upper Dublin (38.5).
Cheltenham took first with a time of 47.60 seconds in the 4×100 relay (Barnes, Fleming, Crosby and Williams) and first in the 4×400 with a clocking of 3 minutes, 53.23 seconds (Brianna Smith, Barnes, Williams and Crosby).
Crosby won the 400-meter dash in 56.42 to earn her first individual district gold medal after earning gold in several relays in years past. Smith won the gold in high jump, setting the school mark at 5 feet, 7 inches. She also placed fourth in both the 100 hurdles and the 300 hurdles.
Cheltenham finished fifth with 26 points at the PIAA Track & Field Championships at Shippensburg University. The Panthers' only gold medal of the event came in the 4×100 relay with a winning time of 46.80. Crosby took third in the 400 at 55.51 and Smith and Barnes finished seventh and eighth, respectively, in the 300 hurdles.
The Panthers' season also included a strong showing at the historic Penn Relays. Barnes, Fleming, Crosby, and Williams won the 4×100 Tri-State relay in 47.39 seconds, besting Union Catholic of Scotch Plains, N.J., by less than two-tenths of a second. Cheltenham, which has won the event four consecutive years, set the meet record in 2017 (45.94).