Six feet of separation for high jumper Claire Keiffer-Wright

After a sophomore season in which South Pasadena High's Claire Kieffer-Wright won a CIF State individual championship, led her squad to a CIF Southern Section Division III team title and was named the All-Area Girls' Track and Field Athlete of the Year, there remained one big question.

Could the junior repeat?

"Had success come early? Sure, that's something we thought about briefly," South Pasadena High jumps coach Eugene Hutchinson said. "Had Claire done too much, too early in her career? Would the desire be there? We thought about that for a little, but only a little."

While Kieffer-Wright's 2012 success revolved around her state-winning high jump mark of 5 feet, 10 inches, her 2013 season didn't include a state crown.

Yet, it could be argued that Kieffer-Wright's just-concluded track and field season proved that the 16-year-old South Pasadena resident was more than a one-jump wonder.

"Going into my sophomore year, I think most people thought of me as a volleyball player, including myself," Kieffer-Wright said. "Then I won the state title, which was amazing, and I had friends asking me what it was like and what I was going to do next and if I could do it again."

The University of Michigan-bound high jumper outdid herself in leaping to new heights, winning new titles and being unanimously voted the All-Area Girls' Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the sports writers and editors of the Pasadena Sun, La Cañada Valley Sun, Glendale News-Press and Burbank Leader.

The pinnacle of Kieffer-Wright's sophomore campaign was no doubt winning a state title by matching a personal-best jump of 5-10.

Yet, even on that day of immense success, Kieffer-Wright missed three attempts to surpass that distance.

For a while, the 5-10 mark was as much a success as it was a plateau.

"I always seemed to be a little off," Kieffer-Wright said of attempts to go beyond 5-10. "I would misstep or hit the bar or something else would happen."

That was, however, until April 20.

During the invitational high jump competition, in front of an estimated crowd of more than 7,000 people at Hilmer Lodge Stadium in Walnut, Kieffer-Wright leaped to 6 feet in her third attempt at the height during the 66th annual Mt. San Antonio College Relays.

Kieffer-Wright became the instant state leader and broke the previous Mt. SAC high school record of 5-10 set by five-time U.S. Olympian Amy Acuff in 1984.

"It was such an incredible effort because she really worked to hit 6 feet," said South Pasadena assistant CB Richards. "She missed at Arcadia and I just wanted to see her get over that hurdle."

The jump also earned Kieffer-Wright a ticket to the 2013 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, IA on June 20, in which she ultimately finished fourth (5-8 3/4) and punched her passport to the Pan Am Junior Championships in Medellin, Colombia on Aug. 23.

While the Mt. SAC jump marked the high point of the 2013 season for Kieffer-Wright, there were also other successes.

A sophomore season that included several accolades excluded a couple of big prizes, beginning with the Arcadia Invitational, as Kieffer-Wright was runner-up her sophomore year with a leap of 5-6.

After two rounds of the event's 46th edition April 6, the junior was well on her way past 5-6 and returned to her state-championship form by winning the event with a mark of 5-10.

"I missed winning Arcadia last year and I didn't want to walk away empty-handed," Kieffer-Wright said.

The 5-10 height marked the first time Kieffer-Wright had hit that mark since the 2012 season.

Yet, as was often the case in 2013, Kieffer-Wright rarely needed to attempt 5-10.

Despite suffering an ankle sprain in the week leading up the Rio Hondo League finals on May 4, Kieffer-Wright still won a league title and broke her own league record of 5-5 by an inch before withdrawing.

The good news for Kieffer-Wright was that the injury had no effect two weeks later at the CIF Southern Section Division III championships at Mt. SAC on May 18.

The day proved bittersweet as the Tigers did not defend their divisional crown, instead taking fifth with 33 points and finishing well behind new champion Alemany (87 points).

Yet, Kieffer-Wright enjoyed two particularly satisfying successes.

In the high jump, the junior outdid a 2012 co-championship shared with Orange Lutheran's Taylor Saline (both jumped 5-7). This time, Kieffer-Wright claimed an outright title and advancement to the Masters Meet with a jump of 5-11.

"That's what I was missing from last year and that's what I came to get," Kieffer-Wright said. "That was important to me, but so was the [4x400-meter] relay."

Perhaps the biggest thrill for Kieffer-Wright came when the South Pasadena girls' 4x400 team, to which Kieffer-Wright ran the opening leg, also qualified to the Masters Meet by finishing fourth in Division III and eighth overall with a mark of 3 minutes, 51.04 seconds.

The group, which missed qualifying to the Masters Meet in 2012, consisted of Kieffer-Wright, Laura Anuakpado, Kamia Rodil Willis and Anika Renken.

"Claire is just an overall good athlete. She high-jumped and she ran a relay for us," South Pasadena Coach PJ Hernandez said, "but she could have done more if needed. I thought about running her in the 400 and maybe doing the long jump. The good thing is we had a pretty deep team, which allowed her to focus on her events."

Despite the success, the fun didn't end for Kieffer-Wright and Co. at the Masters Meet.

The quartet set a new personal record at Cerritos College on May 24 when it finished fifth with a mark of 3:49.23 and advanced to the CIF State Track and Field Championships at Buchanan High in Clovis.

About the only drama for Kieffer-Wright came during the relay race, as the leaper calmly hit a state-qualifying mark of 5-5 in the high jump and called it a day.

"It seemed like the team was peaking at the right time going into state," Richards said. "As a coach, that's what you want and work toward. I thought that was happening, but then we had an off-day."

Perhaps the only hiccup for Kieffer-Wright came on the second day of the state championships in Clovis.

There was no hint of issues for the Tigers on Friday night, as Kieffer-Wright needed only three attempts during the high jump prelims to qualify to Saturday's final with a mark of 5-6.

In fact, the only problem was the length of the high jump competition, which concluded only minutes before the start of the 4x400 relay.

Kieffer-Wright turned from leaper to sprinter in crossing the field and finding the sign-in table just in time.

Kieffer-Wright then joined her teammates and helped set another team best and school record with a seventh-place mark of 3:49.17, which advanced the squad to the finals.

It turned out Friday's effort was the best, as Kieffer-Wright struggled Saturday in the high jump before no-heighting on three attempts at 5-6 and finishing with a 10th-place mark of 5-3 3/4.

As for the 4x400 team, it also suffered a setback in finishing ninth with a time of 3:53.06.

Weeks after the state final, there was no explanation for what happened.

"I can only say the same thing now that I said that Saturday; I don't know what happened," Kieffer-Wright said. "We just didn't have our best effort. It's disappointing, but that's life."

Moments after that statement, Kieffer-Wright made one follow-up retort.

"As a state champion, you obviously want to defend your title and it's sad that I didn't," Kieffer-Wright said. "But I have to look at this season overall and, when I do, this was a really successful year. I accomplished a lot and I left one big goal for next year."

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