Known for high-flying dunks, Penn Hills’ Daemar Kelly now leaping over high jump bars

Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | 11:38 PM

Anyone who saw Daemar Kelly finish an alley-oop this winter knows the Penn Hills senior can almost fly. In a gym, on a wood floor, with a basketball in his hands, few around the WPIAL jump higher than him.

Yet lately he’s raised the bar — literally.

Kelly joined the Penn Hills track team for the first time this spring and quickly became one of the top high jumpers in the WPIAL. He cleared 6-foot-3 to win Baldwin Invitational this month, surprising even himself with how quickly he’s improved his marks.

“It’s a very different takeoff from dunking a ball to trying to go over the bar,” said Kelly, but that hasn’t stopped him.

He wants to win a medal — maybe gold — at the WPIAL track and field championships Wednesday at Slippery Rock. He’s hoping for a personal-best of 6-5, which could also put him in the conversation for the WPIAL title.

A year ago, the winning jump in Class 3A boys was 6-4. This year, the top seeds are 6-5.

“I can get 6-5,” he said. “From there, we’ll see.”

Basketball is his favorite sport. He led Penn Hills to a WPIAL title this past winter and was selected for the TribLive HSSN Terrific 10.

The 6-5 guard already finalized his college plans by signing with Quinnipiac, a Division I program in Connecticut that competes in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

So he suddenly had free time.

“After basketball season I was thinking, ‘What should I be doing to keep myself in shape?’” he said. “My basketball teammate Julian Dugger runs track, too, so I decided to come out here and have a last go-round with him in a high school sport.”

Coaching the Penn Hills jumpers is assistant Breanna Phillips, a former pentathlete at Pitt, who joined the staff this spring. Kelly’s athleticism is exceptional, she said, but his desire to win — almost an expectation of success — drew her interest.

“I have loved working with him because he is very confident,” she said. “As a high school student, I was never like that. You don’t always see that in athletes. When I say ‘try this’ or ‘try this,’ he says ‘OK.’

“A lot of kids won’t do that.”

When Kelly first joined the track team, he explored a few different events. He’s quick with a basketball, so he gave sprinting a try.

“I remember my first track meet, I was in the 100 and got beat on badly,” he said. “I did kind of good in the 200. But then when I saw the dudes jumping on the high jump, I said, ‘I can do this.’”

Nowadays, he’s working on honing his technique, like throwing his back over the bar. But earlier this spring, Phillips tried to relate high jumping to basketball.

“When we first started, it was a lot of saying, ‘Let’s act like we’re going to go dunk the ball,’” she said. “That’s how he learned to how to high jump.”

Clearly, it worked.

Only eight jumpers in WPIAL 3A cleared 6-3 this season. Laurel Highlands’ Hunter Kooser, Butler teammates Braylon Littlejohn and Orein McBride-Cager and Norwin’s Isaiah Kline are the four who’ve cleared 6-5, according to the WPIAL heat sheets.

“I’m sad I only get him for one year,” Phillips said “I told him you could still go to college for this. It’s not too late.”

That leads to the obvious question: How high might Kelly jump if he’d started four years ago?

“Nah, I’m not thinking about that,” Kelly said, laughing. “Basketball is my main goal.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at

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