Round Two: Braving the great outdoors to get the story

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

With 2024 marking my 30-year anniversary of covering sports in Portage County, I figured I’d take a walk down memory lane and look back at the years I spent covering high school track and field (and cross country, too, since it’s pretty much the same coaches and athletes). The stories are endless, but I thought I’d cull a few of my favorites for Round Two.

In Part 1 last week, I recounted unforgettable moments like Garfield’s John Oliver telling me he would return to finish our interview at Ohio Stadium right after he won the 110-meter hurdle state championship race — which he did easily (kind of like Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series); a Mogadore runner who shall remain nameless jogging backward through much of the 3,200 in a meet at Woodridge (ostensibly in protest of having to do the event in the first place); and the haunting specter of Comet Hale-Bopp hanging high in the night sky above Roosevelt Stadium following a meet in April 1997, an awesome snapshot forever etched in my memory.

Now comes Part 2 and another batch of Portage County track and cross country moments I’ll never forget:

– I’m not going to lie: I developed a special affinity for Crestwood track and field. Coach Don Faix and I hit it off immediately, and the folks surrounding the Red Devils’ program quickly took me under their wing in my rookie coverage season of spring 1994. They were at most of the invitationals I covered, so it was always nice to see some friendly faces when I arrived at a stadium full of strangers. As I detailed last week, I had no idea how to cover a track meet when I first started at the Record-Courier, and part of that included how to properly prepare to cover a track meet — you know, little things like making sure to eat something before spending endless hours at an invitational and dressing for the weather.

In other words, things that could make you miserable if you weren’t prepared. Which I often wasn’t.

Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but for some reason it took awhile for me to grasp the importance of making sure to bring food, a jacket and an umbrella to these meets. Until that point, I spent too many long days shivering in the cold, so hungry I could eat the grass I was standing on, getting soaked to the point that I could wring water out of the now-useless notebook that I had been using for stats and interviews, the words and numbers contained therein looking more like watercolor art than legible information.

And this is where the good people with the Crestwood track and field program came in. Actually, came to the rescue would be more accurate, because time and again they offered me food (they always brought tote bags full of goodies), jackets and umbrellas — and if they didn’t have an extra umbrella, they made room for me to huddle underneath one with them.

You don’t forget generosity like that.

– Speaking of weather, I was covering the Big E Invitational at Akron Ellet one year, observing the meet from my perch in the home stands, when a snow squall suddenly hit the area. It was a cold day in early April — and yes, by this time I had learned my lesson and was dressed appropriately — but the weather report had only mentioned something about flurries. Well, this wasn’t flurries. This was a solid 15-20 minutes of snow coming down so hard and fast that you could barely see the track from the stands. They managed to get the entire meet in, but it was a surreal scene. It looked like the dead of winter. The only time I saw snow coming down heavier than that was the Mogadore-Independence football playoff game at Bedford High School in November 1995, which was off the charts (if you were there, you know what I’m talking about).

– Speaking of Mogadore, I considered it a good day any time I covered a meet where Kim Kreiner was competing. I didn’t know I was covering a future two-time Olympian and North American record-holder, but I knew I was witnessing greatness. And the best part: Even as a high schooler, Kim was sincerely humble about her accomplishments — maybe too humble from a sportswriter’s perspective. She was always reluctant to talk about herself; she could be minutes removed from setting a new school or Portage County League record — which seemed to happen about every other meet — yet sound like she was talking about the weather. It was sincere humility — and quiet focus and determination. Traits that, years later, enabled her to star at Kent State University and eventually become the best javelin thrower in the United States.

– Switching gears to cross country, Emily Mars of Field was another of my favorites to cover. It’s saying a lot when I tell you that Emily’s state titles in track and cross country aren’t what I remember most about her, because she was a dominant distance runner. So dominant, in fact, that when I covered the 1999 state championship meet at Scioto Downs in Columbus her senior year and saw her reenter the stadium for the final few hundred yards of the race, I honestly thought something had gone terribly wrong. Not only did Emily enter the stadium by herself, she ran alone in the stadium for a good distance before another runner showed up. It briefly crossed my mind that maybe Emily had veered off course somehow to be that far ahead of the rest of the field. But no, she was just that good. She won the state championship by 10 seconds, and she didn’t even look tired afterward. More than her athletic talent, though, what sticks out most in my mind is Emily’s engaging, magnetic personality: upbeat, always smiling and laughing, truly enjoying her time as a high school student-athlete. And that, after all, is what it’s all about.

Stay tuned for Part 3 next week, which will include an unfortunate incident that happened to another R-C sportswriter (it wasn’t me, honest) at a postseason cross country meet. It’s truly one for the ages.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.