Mt. Pleasant’s Gardner ‘phenomenal’ at WPIAL swim meet, winning 6th gold

Friday, February 28, 2020 | 6:40 PM

Heather Gardner’s closest competitor called her “phenomenal.”

Her younger sister called her an “inspiration.”

There are many other words to describe the Mt. Pleasant senior swimmer, but none more appropriate than “champion.”

Gardner claimed the sixth WPIAL individual title of her decorated career Friday at the WPIAL Class AA championships at Pitt’s Trees Pool, touching the wall in 1 minute, 4.87 seconds to win the 100-yard breaststroke.

It was her third straight title in the event, matching her accomplishment of winning a third straight 50 freestyle gold medal Thursday afternoon.

“It’s so awesome. It’s an honor,” said Gardner, a Liberty recruit. “I’ve worked so hard to earn all those medals. I’m just really, really proud of myself to finish like that.”

Gardner edged Highlands’ Rachel Blackburn (1:06.10) and Indiana’s Harley Kessler (1:06.29) to win the breaststroke.

“She’s phenomenal. She’s so good,” Blackburn said. “She just produces every time. She’s hard to beat.”

Gardner’s performance helped the Mt. Pleasant girls team to a runner-up finish behind Elizabeth Forward, which had 265 points. The Warriors were followed by the Vikings (194), Laurel Highlands (193), Indiana (164) and Quaker Valley (143).

Mt. Pleasant was bolstered by Gardner’s freshman sister, SaraJo, who finished fifth in the 100 backstroke (1:00.26). The Gardner sisters also teamed with freshman Reegan Brown and senior Cally Hixson to finish third in the 400 freestyle relay (3:40.00).

“I’m definitely excited I medaled in both my events,” SaraJo Gardner said. “I was hoping to do a little better in my backstroke. I wanted to improve my time, but I didn’t. I feel like that time is good enough to get me to states, where I can improve it there.”

The WPIAL champions in each event automatically qualify for the PIAA championships March 11-14 at Bucknell. The remaining qualifiers will be decided based on times from all 12 districts.

Gardner wasn’t the only repeat champion from Westmoreland County.

Belle Vernon’s Ian Shahan and Neshannock’s Conner McBeth surpassed Shahan’s 100-yard freestyle WPIAL record set last year when the rivals swam neck-and-neck through Friday’s race.

Shahan out-touched Cooper at the finish, winning with a time of 44.68 seconds to lower his record. Cooper clocked a runner-up time of 45.08.

“I love racing Conner,” Shahan said. “Me and him, we push each other so much.”

Shahan’s 2019 WPIAL- winning time in the event was 45.48.

It is Shahan’s fifth individual title. He won the 100 backstroke in 2017 and added the 100 butterfly title Thursday to the one he won last year.

“This is a good staging ground for states,” said Shahan, who hopes to claim his second straight PIAA 100 free title. “I have a good base where I need to go. I didn’t shave down for this meet, and I had a light taper, so I know I can go a lot faster. That’s the plan.”

Also in the 100 freestyle, Belle Vernon’s Sam West took eighth (50.01). Belle Vernon’s Delaney Patterson finished sixth in the 100 breaststroke (1:08.66), just ahead of Greensburg Salem’s Madison Cassidy, who was eighth (1:10.08).

Southmoreland freshman Henry Miller (1:00.30) left with a bronze medal after finishing behind Indiana’s Cole Thome (59.31) and Knoch’s Braden Zukowski (1:00.23) in the 100 breaststroke. Derry senior Jake Buhite was sixth (1:02.04).

In the final event of the meet, Belle Vernon’s unit of Garrett Ursiny, Cody Danto, West and Shahan finished third in the 400 free relay (3:19.65). Mt. Pleasant finished seventh in the event (3:25.20).

Indiana captured the boys team championship with 236 points.

Next were Northgate (213), Riverside (166), Knoch (154) and North Catholic (148).

Bill Hartlep is the sports editor of the Tribune-Review. You can contact Bill at or via Twitter @BHartlep_Trib.

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