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Finnish exchange student Kunnas vaults to Section VI title

North Tonawanda’s Anton Kunnas has had to get comfortable with a new pole length and step count in his pole vault routine this year.

He’s had to get comfortable living in a foreign country, too.

Kunnas, a senior exchange student from Finland, has fit right in on the North Tonawanda track and field team, and the thrill of winning remains the same no matter where he lives.

Kunnas won the pole vault with a leap of 14 feet, 9 inches at the Section VI track and field championships at Houghton College’s Kerr-Pegula Athletic Complex on Saturday.

“I felt really good and confident today,” said Kunnas, who speaks very clean english with a slight accent. “We’ve been working on this the whole season, so I felt really good about it.”

Aside from switching to a longer, 15-foot pole and moving from a 12-step approach back to a 14-step approach, competing for the Lumberjacks has been a bit different for Kunnas. Last summer he started training with the Finnish youth national team, where he practiced anywhere from four to six times per week depending on the season. But North Tonawanda doesn’t have an indoor pit so Kenmore West allows NT to use its facility one day a week.

“It’s a little bit difficult for me because in Finland we can basically practice whenever we want to, but here the time is often limited,” said Kunnas, who started pole vaulting at age 14.

Kunnas still managed to set the Section VI record last weekend with a vault of 15-3 at SUNY Fredonia, which broke Lancaster’s Ryan Pericozzi’s record of 15-2 in 2008. He attempted to clear 15-6 after his 14-9 vault on Saturday, but failed on all three attempts. It would’ve been a personal best.

[Video: Kunnas goes for his third attempt at the Section VI record]

While most pole vaulters only compete in that event, Kunnas isn’t a one-trick pony. He also excels in distance running.

Kunnas has the second-best time in the 600 and the third-best time in the 1,000 when ranked against Western New York competition. NT coach Kevin Wartinger said he has a chance to win a sectional title in the 400 hurdles come the spring outdoor season.

The only other event he competed in on Saturday was the 4x400 relay. He passed a Niagara Falls runner on the final leg to finish in third place.

“Back in Finland I used to train athletics, like it wasn’t really anything specific, so I think I have a really good base for every event,” Kunnas said. “I think I’m talented on long-distance because I can easily learn new things, so that’s why I pole vault too.”

Kunnas will head to the NYSPHSAA Championships next weekend at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island as the top seed in the state.

“I’m super excited,” Kunnas said. “I haven’t been to New York City yet. That’s going to be so cool.”

Orchard Park’s Jenna Crean distinguished herself as the top sprinter on the girls side Saturday. The sophomore won the 55 and defended her title in the 300, but the most impressive performance came in the 4x200 relay when when she erased a moderately-sized Lancaster lead in the last leg to help the Quakers win.

Orchard Park sophomore Jenna Crean won the 55, 300 and 4x200 relay at the Section VI Championships. Click on the photo for Harry Scull Jr.'s gallery from Houghton College. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Mere hundredths of seconds separated the best boys sprinters in the 55 and 55 hurdles.

The top five finishers in the 55 finished within 0.05 seconds of each another. Depew senior Antonio Antonov, seeded fourth coming in with a 6.74, dropped .1 seconds to win the race in 6.64. Hutch-Tech’s Jack Manue (6.65), Sweet Home’s Anthony Williams (6.67), Niagara Falls’ Rodney Barnes (6.67) and Lockport’s Tom Wendt (6.69) followed.

Niagara Falls senior Roshain Wallace defended his 55 hurdles title by running a 7.92 and edging out Williamsville East’s Baltaj Sandhur (7.94) and North Tonawanda’s Ed Gath (7.95). Wallace’s seeding time of 7.96 was the only one below 8 seconds.

Holland’s Riley Jones won the 1,500 and shared the 3,000 crown with Clarence’s Katrina Patterson, who won it last year. It wasn’t because the two runners tied.

An official started signaling in the middle of the race that there was one less lap than there actually was. This caused multiple runners to waste energy on what they thought was their final lap, only to find out that they had one more to go. A protest was contemplated, but Section VI ultimately decided to name them co-champions and not re-run the race.

Jones wasn’t originally planning on running the 1,500, but she urged coach Matt Adams to put her in the race after what happened earlier in the day.

“Count your laps. Always count your own laps,” Jones said she learned. After the 3,000 “I was a little mad because I’ve never won a sectional championship as an individual before. I just wanted to go out again and get it done fair and square.”

[Photo gallery: The Section VI Championships through the lens of Harry Scull Jr.]

Other notables:

  • Sweet Home won the most events at the meet with six, while Orchard Park won five and Niagara Falls four.
  • Williamsville South’s winning 4x800 relay team of Molly Moore, Sam Vahue, Sarah Cook and Amberlee Robertson ran a school-record 9:34.79, which is 15 seconds less than the time the same relay team set earlier this season.
  • Falconer pole vaulter Rachael Ward won the section VI title and broke the school record with her vault of 11 feet, 3 inches.
  • Orchard Park took the top three spots in the 1,600-meter run. Cal Puskar won the title, followed by Tom Flannery and Michael Totaro. Those three teamed up with William Graves to win the 4x800 relay.
  • Sweet Home junior Caleb Nickens threw a personal-best 62 feet, 0.75 inches to win the weight throw.
  • Sweet Home’s Eric Johnson (300), Chris Nowak (1,000) and Nathaniel Davis (triple jump) all won individual events on Saturday and combined with Kyle Durwald to win the 4x400 relay.

Additional athletes who defended last year’s titles:

  • Boys 4x200 relay: Niagara Falls (Tariq Taul, Roshain Wallace, Christian Meranto, Rodney Barnes)
  • Boys high jump: Tariq Taul (Niagara Falls)
  • Girls 300: Emma Seiders (Dunkirk)
  • Girls triple jump: Emily Marchitte (West Seneca West)
  • Girls weight throw: Brianna McKenzie (Lancaster)
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