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Penn Hills fitness teams display strength at national competition

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 10:45 a.m.
Submitted photo
Brandon Nelson and Brian Reis perform pull-ups at the National High School Physical Fitness Championships, held in May at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, Calif.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
Above, members of the Penn Hills High School Fitness team pose for a photo.
Submitted photo
Marines watch Gina Gionta to ensure she employs the proper technique for pull-ups at the National High School Physical Fitness Championships, held in May at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, Calif.
Submitted photo
Brian Reis works to complete a pull-up at the National High School Physical Fitness Championships, held in May at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, Calif.
Submitted photo
Penn Hills High School fitness team members are spotted by Marines as they perform sit-ups at the National High School Physical Fitness Championships, held in May at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, Calif.
Submitted photo
From the left are Sarah Hayakawa, Mariah Lockard, Sarah Depew, Gabrielle Sorce, Gina Gionta, Makayla Kotanichek, Jordan Stoecklein, Alyssa Innes and Hannah Stawski, members of the Penn Hills High School fitness team.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn
Above, assistant coaches Jenell Roberts, Eric Fabiszewski and Katie Evans. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Penn Hills Progress

Penn Hills fitness team assistant coach Jenell Roberts said there were plenty of nights when the team's two-hour workouts would extend much longer.

“There were nights we'd be there until 10 or 10:30 p.m. because the kids would want to stay and lift some more or play football,” said Roberts, 25, a 2006 Penn Hills graduate.

That hard work paid off as the boys' and girls' teams came away from the National High School Physical Fitness Championships with fifth- and third-place national finishes, respectively.

The competition was held in May at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego.

Peter Gula, 18, who graduated earlier this month, has been on the team since his freshman year. Gula's father was a member of the team in the 1970s. Gula said the national competition was “unbelievable.”

“We stay on the Marine Corps base, which creates an atmosphere unlike any other local sport, because you're totally immersed in the competition,” he said. “Whenever you look around, there's Marines running, Marines working out, we're lifting with Marines, and that really gets you in the right mindset to compete.”

Coach Bob Martini, who has headed up the team since 1982 and was a member when it first formed in the mid-'60s, said the team requires dedication.

“It's tough. It's a workout all the time,” he said. “People go out for the major sports because they have a God-given talent for that sport. But with this team, every day is a competition between the members. Every night we come in here, it's a hard push.

From November to May, the team meets three nights per week for two-hour physical fitness sessions: weightlifting, sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups and more.

The team, which does not receive any funding from the school district, travels to competitions in Pennsylvania (Allentown), Washington, D.C. and other locations.

The San Diego championships are the farthest the team has traveled.

Roberts said this year's team has expanded from previous years: the team started with about 80 members, and the final team, both boys and girls combined, was about 40.

“Usually our starting group is what we have now, so it's impressive that we kept this many people,” she said.

Roberts joined the team as a freshman along with a group of friends, and found that “it's a great conditioning sport to help you prepare for other sports.”

The fitness-team concept, however, has largely fallen by the wayside, Martini said.

“A lot of (major-sport) coaches don't want their players on the fitness team,” he said. “If a fitness coach retired, schools would try to replace them with one of the major-sport coaches, and the interest wasn't there.”

Martini said Penn Hills used to compete against fitness teams from Westinghouse, Schenley, Plum and Mars; now, the Indians team is the only one left in western Pennsyvlania, but that may be changing.

Martini said he places emphasis on the teamwork aspect of physical fitness.

“As we're training, we tell them, ‘Train your body, not your ego,'” he said. “The whole idea is to be healthy … it helps to know and have good relationships with your teammates and have them behind you pushing you.

“This is just a really, really good team.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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