HANOVER _ As the only jumper to clear 5 feet, 2 inches at the Gardiner Holiday Relays last December, Whippany Park's Kristen Hall got to choose the next height.
Hall, a newcomer to high jumping, having only competed in the event for nine months, had the bar pushed up an inch. The sophomore already had surpassed her personal best by two inches, so why not go higher?
The Wildcats girls and boys teams watched intently as Hall went through her paces. Up she went and over, establishing not only a PR but a school record.
First to congratulate Hall was fellow 10th grader Gina Dello Russo, her teammate and one of her biggest rivals.
"When Kristen got off the mat, she was shocked and surprised," said assistant coach Colin Feeney, who works with Whippany Park's high jumpers, hurdlers and pole vaulters. "Gina went over right away and gave her a big hug."
Feeney loved the gesture, considering the two could take a dramatically different approach to their rapid success.
"It's friendly competition," Feeney said. "They're always the first to support one another. For 15-year-old girls to do that is impressive. Gina had a pretty big spring as a freshman then Kristen sets a record in only her second meet. It's nice that they're such good sports."
Since then, Dello Russo has been just a step ahead of Hall, taking first place in sectional and Group I meets. That hasn't affected their friendship one bit.
"We keep one another calm and confident," Dello Russo said. "We always talk. We push each other. We want to beat one another."
On Saturday, March 1, the two friends will compete in the Meet of Champions at the Bennett Center in Toms River.
"We knew each other before but spring track really brought us together," Hall said. "I'm always cheering for Gina."
Dello Russo, whose PR is 5 feet, 2 inches, one inch less than her height, and Hall played basketball before making the switch to winter track. Dello Russo did not take to the hardwood her freshman year. The 5-foot-9 Hall did and it was expected that she'd excel in that sport.
"I did spring track as a freshman and got five feet. That made me realize I had potential," Hall said. "I didn't really want to stop basketball. I just figured I might have more talent in track."
In the fall, the girls are members of the soccer team. Dello Russo is a midfielder/forward while Hall plays defense. Dello Russo, a former point guard, did not join the high school basketball program, opting instead for winter track.
"I tried track because I didn't want to sit out a season," Dello Russo said. "I tried high jumping, pole vault and hurdles and other events. I liked high jumping the most. When you clear the bar, it's a great feeling. Nothing compares to it. You strive to go higher. You push your body to the limit."
Hall misses basketball yet feels she is best suited for track, especially high jumping.
"Being in an individual sport was a change," Hall said. "I think I like it better. I rely on myself. I put pressure on myself."
Feeney is amazed at the progress Dello Russo and Hall have made. They teamed up to take gold at the Morris County Relays.
"From my experiences, Kristen and Gina have picked it up the fastest," Feeney said. "They listen well and like to learn. They take all that I say and put it into their jumps. Gina has a little more pop. Kristen has the drive."
They're looking forward to the MOC. Dello Russo, also fond of snow and water skiing, skating and surfing, qualified last spring as a freshman but didn't clear the opening height of 5-2. For Hall, it's her first trip.
"It was really cool to watch the older jumpers in the spring at the MOC," said Dello Russo, who hopes to become a heptathlete. "I picked up a few things. I'm more confident now. I feel good at practices. I want to do my best.
"The hardest part is not letting it get in your head. You want to focus on the tactical stuff and not try too hard. If you do, you get frustrated."
Hall is excited to be among the state's elite.
"I've got to focus on what I've learned and go out and perform," Hall said. "I want to do my best."
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