Ezra Mellinger soaked it all in while he stood on the infield on Day Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League Track and Field Championships at Hempfield. He had just won the 200-meter dash in meet-record time. He was on his way to district and titles in the 200 and the long jump to cap a career destined for L-L League lore. The brim of his white Duke University cap shielded his eyes from the late-afternoon sun that also reflected in the gold medal, his third of the league championship meet, hanging around his neck.
"I sort of always loved track," Mellinger said, "especially jumping. These last two years don't define who I am, but I found my niche here. It's something I can really excel at, and I like to take advantage of that and push myself to the limits of what I can physically do."
Mellinger pushed his limits — and the record books — with a whirlwind senior season with Lampeter-Strasburg that culminated with a pair of gold-medal performances at the state meet and Athlete of the Year honors from the Pennsylvania Track and Field Coaches Association. It was a senior season that blended raw talent with refined technique, physical exertion and mental exhaustion, and it captured the attention of track and field fans across the county and beyond.
Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, Mellinger took up track and field in seventh grade. He saw potential in the jumps. His coaches, Calvin Esh and Edward Lennex, agreed and took to helping his development. By the end of his sophomore year, Mellinger was already pushing his limits and pushing the limits of Lampeter-Strasburg's track and field history. His winning long jump in dual meet against Lebanon on May 1, 2017, took him 22 feet, 4 inches, breaking Tom Krause's school record of 22-0.5 set in 1964.
"When I finally hit 22s (as a sophomore)," Mellinger said, "and broke the school record, I was like, 'alright. I want to make this a serious thing now.'"
Mellinger finished fourth in the long jump at the L-L League meet as a sophomore (22-0.75) and 10th in the triple jump (40-5). He also helped the Pioneers' 4x400-meter relay medal with an eighth-place finish (3:46.43).
The following year, at the league meet, Mellinger advanced to the 100 final and won, by a hundredth of a second (11.43), against a field that included senior Jose Barbon of Conestoga Valley, the defending champion.
Fantastic 100-meter final for the L-L League championship. Lampeter-Strasburg's Ezra Mellinger gets the gold (11.43), followed by Conestoga Valley's Jose Barbon (11.45) and Annville-Cleona's Stanley Miller (11.45). About as close as it gets at the top. pic.twitter.com/1rBEb8TlQK— Tim Gross (@TimGrossLNP) May 12, 2018
"That was definitely one of the most notable races I've ever run," Mellinger said. "It did give me a lot of confidence, and it told me that I can run. I can compete. It started my believing that I can do what I can do."
The belief, and the prowess on the track, also pushed Mellinger to farther jumps in the field during his junior season. He hit a new long jump mark of 23-2.5. He bested Barbon at the league meet and won a District Three tiitle. That spring, he also qualified for the long jump championship at the Penn Relays, where he advanced to the finals and finished seventh (22-11.75) and caught the attention of Mark Mueller, the sprints and jumps coach at Duke University. Mellinger reconnected with Mueller at the end of the summer and, after a couple of visits, committed with plans to study in the engineering and science field.
"I had to get my academics up a little bit," Mellinger said, "but I did that."
He also committed to improving his approach to the 200 heading into his senior season.
"A lot of times when I would run it last year," he said, "I didn't commit to running it 100% the whole way around. I got a lot stronger, and it helped me believe in it."
Mellinger's commitment paid off during his final high school season. He ran a hand-held time of 21.4 seconds in an April 8 dual meet against Manheim Central and set a Black Knight Invitational record April, winning winning in 21.48. He went on to push the record books and win titles in the 200 at the L-L League championships (21.59), the District Three championships (21.54) and the PIAA Championships (21.40). His personal-record run at the state meet was the fastest FAT time in L-L League history, matching the hand-held time of 21.4 posted by Cedar Crest's Jaren Hayes in 2001.
Lampeter-Strasburg's Ezra Mellinger comes out of the turn in the District Three Class 3A 200 and takes the title in 21.54. CD East's Shawn Brown finishes second (22.02). pic.twitter.com/U29cEEEzFQ— Tim Gross (@TimGrossLNP) May 18, 2019
Mellinger opted out of the 100 in the postseason after defending his L-L League title to help keep his legs fresh for the long jump. Up to that point, he had won all seven of his dual-meet races, breaking the 11-second barrier in all seven with a personal-best hand-held time of 10.2 in the April 8 meet against Manheim Central. He also took first place in the Black Knight Invitational final (10.64).
One of the unintended consequences of Mellinger's increased speed was its effect on his long-jump precision. Mellinger had won the long jump title at Pennsylvania's state indoor championships in February, breaking a 30-year-old meet record when his first attempt pushed him to a mark of 24-11.5. But as his sprint times shrunk outdoors, so, too, did the margin for error and his time on the runway. Finding the right spot for takeoff was the difference between marks beyond 24 feet, which he hit at dual meets against Solanco and Ephrata, and marks around the 22 feet.
Big long jump for Lampeter-Strasburg's Ezra Mellinger to open the PTFCA indoor championships. He goes 24-11. pic.twitter.com/fZ4vKaunfE— Tim Gross (@TimGrossLNP) February 24, 2019
"It's been a challenge," Mellinger said, "because you have to adjust. I'm getting stronger. I'm getting faster, so I have to adjust at keeping control on the runway."
At times, Mellinger pushed himself beyond the foul line. He misfired on his first two attempts before advancing to the Black Knight Invitational finals, where he set the meet record with his best mark of the season at 24-1.5. On his second trip to the Penn Relays in April, Mellinger fouled out without a mark.
"That was a little frustrating," he said, "but it's important to lose at some point. You have to get used to that."
Mellinger trailed Manheim Central's Will Rivers in the L-L League finals before jumping to the title and a mark of 22-10.25. He followed up the dramatic victory by mining long jump gold at districts (23-9) and states (23.9.25), joining Oliver Manosane, Jeremy Osborne, Jared Schnapf and Jansen Rudy (4x400 relay, 1998) and Emily Kruger (3,200, 2003) on the list of Lampeter-Strasburg's PIAA track and field champions. Mellinger is set to compete in the long jump championship, scheduled for Sunday at noon, at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor meet in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But beyond the records and the medals, as he pushed his limits, Mellinger savored the experience of finding his niche and sharing it with the track and field community. From the Penn Manor parent who held his blocks at the Black Knight Invitational to the gaggle of fans pointing camera phones at his long jump attempts, to fellow competitors asking for advice between jumps, Mellinger found a connection point with the people around him, and it helped him as he capped his high school career.
"it's really cool," he said, "to see how many people that I don't even know are so invested. It's really encouraging."