Indoor track meet brings back a lot of memories to this scribe

The last time I took in an indoor track meet was while I was in college. Don’t bother trying to do the math. Let’s just say it was nearly a half century ago!

When I walked into the Heminger Center last Saturday afternoon I was struck by the two large banners on the wall. They marked the national championships of Tiffin University’s men’s indoor track team in 2016 and 2017. As a former coach, I was suitably impressed.

Right next to those banners was another that marked NCAA Academic Teams of the Year for the women’s lacrosse team, the men’s golf team and the aforementioned men’s indoor track team. As a former teacher, I was equally impressed.

There is no question that Tiffin University has had an incredible amount of success in indoor track. Saturday was no exception as Jonte Baker, the defending national champion in the 60-meter dash, raced to victory in the event. He also added the 200 meter crown at this meet. At the risk of sounding a little silly, let me just say that he is REALLY fast!

There were some other notable performers on this day, including TU’s shot putters and a hurdler named Trevor Bassitt from Ashland who set a national best time in this young season while winning the 60 meter hurdles race.

But if truth be told, I was here to watch one group of athletes in particular. I broke out my Heidelberg sweatshirt and a baseball cap (that has a story of its own) and searched out “my” kids. Let me explain.

When the weather turned cold, I moved my strenuous (no, seriously) walking workouts indoors to the YMCA. I have been going to the “Y” between 6 and 6:30 in the morning. You would be amazed at the number of people working out at that hour.

One such group was the Heidelberg indoor track team. These young athletes have to rise by 5 a.m. to get to practice. I can count on one hand the number of times I was awake that early — let alone physically training — when I was in college, and I would not need all of the digits! Fortunately for me, baseball and basketball practices were held at a much more reasonable hour.

As I watched them workout, day after day, I was impressed with their desire to better themselves. On a couple of occasions, when they were taking a break from sprinting and I was taking a break from my workout (come on, work with me here) I had a chance to chat with a quartet of sprinters.

Let me introduce you to senior Allison Schwarzbek from Fairview, sophomore Noah Paris from Elida, senior Dan Stoll from Edison and sophomore Tomea Abbitt from Watkins Memorial. I got to know them a little from our conversations and I was anxious to watch them compete. Though I was there to see all the athletes perform, my hope was to see these four do well.

Since this was a large meet, most events did not have finals. You simply ran in one of the many heats and the event winners would be determined by time. For me, that meant rooting for my four runners in their respective heats.

I noticed that Allison had been coughing at practices leading up to the meet. When I asked her about it on Saturday, she said she had bronchitis. That’s not something you want to deal with while running, but she held her own. Competing in the 400 meters she won her heat by a solid margin and finished fourth overall.

Dan Stoll ran in the first heat in the same event and nipped his only opponent at the wire. He was not satisfied with his performance, suggesting to me that he had left a little out there. Nevertheless, he was the meet winner in a time of 50.62! He would add a third in the 200 meters.

His win in the 400 was not unexpected. Dan has qualified for nationals in the past in this event.

Noah Paris seems to be the quietest of the four. Quiet perhaps, but not slow. He had a photo finish in his heat of the 200, placing 10th overall. I love his stride and he seems all business on the track.

Then there is Tomea! Sometimes you hear of an athlete who would run through a wall to win a race. Tomea certainly qualifies on that count. One day last week, I was walking when I heard the crash. By the time I got to the scene of the crime, she was laying on the floor. Fortunately, she was not hurt, but was laughing uncontrollably.

When I caught up with her later, I asked what happened. She had this reply while chuckling: “My feet stopped, but the rest of me didn’t!”

Tomea came from behind to win her heat in the 400, but seemed to come up a little lame at the finish. Again, I queried her about it. She has had ankle issues and said that when her foot comes down in the wrong spot, it hurts.

Yet, she is there for every practice — again very early in the morning!

Such was the case this past Monday, as all four sprinters were again at the YMCA early. Well, all but one of them. Dan Stoll was notably absent and when I asked Allison about his absence, she said he was up late the previous night studying for exams.

For some reason the “one hand” thing came into my head again!

As for the hat I wore at the meet… I call it my Jack*** Hat. My daughter gave it to me. A student from the University of Central Missouri did an internship with the minor league team she works for and his dad dropped off several of the caps for members of the front office. She thought I might like one.

For those of you who don’t know, UCM are the Mules. Well, at least the men’s teams are. The women are known as the Jennies! I wore the hat because the black cap with the red mule logo matched my Heidelberg sweatshirt. Little did I know that a UCM athlete was participating in the meet!

Callie Ruffener, a graduate of Colonel Crawford, is a pole vaulter for Central Missouri. Since she was home for Christmas break, she asked her coaches if she could take part. With their blessing, she did just that. I wish I could have caught up with her to see how surprised she would have been to see my hat.

One thing about the Heminger Center that differed from my days in college was the stopping point for the 60-meter races. Several large mats are placed on the wall at the end of the straightaway so runners can bounce off them instead of the wall itself.

In the Hiram College Fieldhouse a large door was opened when the short sprints were run, which meant the runners finished outdoors in the snow and cold. Hiram had to be the only venue in the country where the sprinters came back to the finish line nearly as fast as they sped past it in the first place!

All in all, it was a fun day. My Heidelberg kids did just fine and I got to see some outstanding performances.

I’d like to wish all local indoor track athletes success as the season picks up in earnest after the holidays.

Let’s see now, the nationals are in Birmingham, Alabama in March. I’ll have to check my schedule…

Al Stephenson is a sports columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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