Red Right 88

Cleveland sports fan and sports writer

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

quit my job decided to drive west

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Anyone can be a winner, it takes more to be a champion

Expectations can color any achievement.

It is not unusual at a track meet to see varied reactions after a race or an event. I have seen a race where the kid who finished last is pumped up and grinning ear to ear. Her coach hugs her and they celebrate a time that is a new personal record. Meanwhile the event's champion is a little frustrated. Sure, she won the race, but she didn't reach the time she was looking for.

Never was that more apparent than this past weekend at Jesse Owens Stadium in Columbus. There on the podium stand, you would often see a seventh place finisher elated to be there while the second place finisher was ready to break out into tears, disappointed as a dream fell short.

For our local competitors, there were many different emotions. A few months ago, Olmsted Fall's Brittany Snyder and Rocky River's Megan Grey didn't even intend to compete in their respective events. So for those two freshman, the state meet was more about a learning experience than anything else.

For seniors like Craig Acker and Lauren Derov, the state meet was a fitting end for their hard work throughout their careers. I am sure both wanted to throw a little better, but years from now, that state appearance will be viewed as a worthy end to their high school athletic careers.

Rocky River sophomore Ellie Brandt is a superstar waiting to blossom. She has had a lot of near misses in her young career. A false start in her best event at the regional meet may have been the springboard she needed. A focused Ellie found her way into the finals.

Bay junior Rachael Doughty always looks so determined. After all her wins this season, I have rarely seen a smile. But her grin was huge after her third place finish in the 100-meter hurdles. She broke her own barrier of 15 seconds and that "win" was worth celebrating for her.

The Fairview 4x400 team did not run the time they wanted in the finals. But making the finals after not winning conference or districts this season was in itself an achievement. It was a great way for Stacie Dorian to end her career. It will be interesting to see if that race pushes the rest of her teammates to put in the dedication and effort to keep the string of state appearance alive without her presence.

But no athlete in our coverage area had more pressure than Molly Bartkiewicz. The Westlake senior had a magical run last spring. In the same conference, district and regional as Avon Lake's Katie Nowak, Molly flew under the radar. Her third place finish (while Nowak did not reach the podium) at the state meet was a major triumph.

It also raised expectations. Not only for herself but for those watching her. A second place at the state meet this year, while a great accomplishment and something worth cheering for, still would have felt like a let-down.

I helped push the expectations for Molly. Last spring, I asked Bay senior Kelley Moore to keep a journal for me about her senior year. It worked well as Kelley won a state title in the discus. At the SWC swim meet this year I asked Molly if she would be interested in keeping a journal for me. It took her less than an hour to decide she was in. So I asked her to think a little longer and make sure her coaches and parents were on board as well. Kelley had the advantage of already being a state champion when she started her journal. Molly had yet to compete as the favorite. Being the athlete with the target on your back can be a difficult burden.

But I knew she had the right stuff. And more importantly I believed that Molly believed that she had the right stuff. Still early in the season when Molly no-heighted at an event, I grew concerned that I had heaped too much pressure on her. I wonder if she doubted as well.

Molly faced her biggest test at districts. She was supposed to win easily and she had passed attempting every height until 11 feet. Rather than a sure thing, she missed her first two attempts and another miss would have ended her season two weeks early. It would have been a devastating end to a high school career, but she found the inner strength to bounce back and make the height on her last attempt.

Believe it or not, I think when another athlete set the state record the week before states, it helped Molly. It allowed her to refocus and it placed the pressure squarely on that other athlete. Molly looked a little shaky on her first jump. She cleared 11 feet, but my photographer Larry Bennet commented how it wasn't as clean as many of her jumps. I overheard another coach diss Molly to his athlete and tell her she was far better than Molly. I think that opinion fell deaf when Molly cleared 11'6 with such ease. You could see doubt sink into the other athletes. When the rest of the remaining vaulters all missed their first attempt at 12 feet, Molly never flinched. She cleared 12 feet so cleanly, I honestly believe it shook the nerves of the other competitors. I saw the look on the face of her biggest rival, and despite knowing how talented she was, I knew it was over. I don't know how much adversity that opponent had faced all year, but I do know the adversity Molly faced had made her strong enough to embrace the pressure of that state meet.

Molly almost set the state record and I am convinced if one of her rivals had cleared 12-feet, Molly would have set the record. We were all set up for a historic battle and when Molly won so quickly, I think it removed the stress and determination that Molly had found to use to her advantage. Desperation can make a powerful ally or it can destroy you. Molly had embraced the former.

Doing your best can always be considered winning. But doing your best when everyone expects you to do so can often be harder. But that is why Molly Bartkiewicz is now a state champion.

Everybody loves KateLynn and Shannon (And those like them)

Last week, many seniors ended their high school athletic careers. On the Westshore, I am aware of just nine senior-athletes who will compete next week at the state track meet. For everyone else, their high school athletic careers are over. I would hope every team in every sport has their own version of KateLynn Riley and Shannon Eccleston. But then again maybe not. I once had a coach tell me how much two of his seniors meant to him and his program as the team celebrated senior day. A week later, the playoffs began without either senior as they both had quit the team. Not everything is always as copasetic as it seems.

But I am positive that Westlake's KateLynn Riley and North Olmsted’s Shannon Eccleston are the real deal. All track season, I have heard glowing report after glowing report from the pair's teammates and coaches. I am sure I would get the same from their coaches and teammates in basketball and soccer respectively as well. In fact, Westlake track coach Duane Miller even got choked up a little on the phone before Riley ran her final race at the regional meet. What made them both special is that besides being talented, they worked hard and were immensely likable. It would be easy for someone talented to think just about themselves. Riley won three straight SWC 100-meter hurdle titles. Eccleston won eight SWC titles, but from everything I’ve heard, you would never know it with how they handled themselves. We have all seen have how sometimes success changes a person. The work ethic falters while self-importance rises.

As a former high school coach, I have first-hand experience on how some seniors can treat freshmen. Often a talented freshman takes a spot of a senior and they can become resented and excluded. Being on varsity as a freshman is tough enough, but it can be nearly impossible if you don’t feel as a part of the team. Imagine the pain of being trashed on the Internet by the bitter parent of a senior. Great senior leaders can make life easier on a freshman.

Every underclassmen I have talked to about Riley and Eccleston raves about not only their support, but just how nice they are. Never underestimate the power of nice from the team's leader. Many of those quotes have appeared in this paper the last few weeks and in Shannon's case, last fall for soccer. I got so many there wasn’t even room for all of them.

North Olmsted assistant track coach Lisa Pochatek is also the school's cross-country coach. However, her freshman daughter Morgan is a sprinter rather a than distance runner. Pochatek told me how she let Morgan learn from Shannon.

"Morgan is a pure sprinter and I've had to entrust her training in the hands of the other coaches and Shannon," Pochatek said. "She has been learning so much from Shannon, she's really taken Morgan under her wing and is really showing her how to prepare for her races and how to be focused."

A few weeks ago in this paper, Miller echoed the belief of coaches everywhere when he shared how you just can't stress how important it is to have your best athlete also be your hardest worker and your team leader.

When you have a great senior team captain it often creates future great team captains. And that is exactly what KateLynn Riley and Shannon Eccleston brought to their schools. May every coach be so blessed.