By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
SHARPSVILLE HIGH’S track and field athletes never worried about the caliber of competition they’d face in weekday dual meets or Saturday invitationals. Even the District 10 Championships. Not when they were competing against a former All-American heptathlete each day in practice.
And while the Blue Devils’ D-10 performance was impressive, Sharpsville’s success was not shocking — only the fact the school district continued fielding a team after the Blue Devils nearly disappeared into oblivion a year ago.
But following a 2-year hiatus Suzanne Joseph returned as Sharpsville’s head coach at numerous student-athletes’ urging, and she helped resurrect Sharpsville’s sagging program. Two of her athletes, Doug Stevenson and Tony Zeronis, won individual D-10 titles (Stevenson swept the 100- and 200-meter dashes) and they formed half of the Blue Devils’ runner-up 4x400-meter relay quartet that also included Shane Sigler and Colman Munoz that set a school standard (3:30.55).
Approximately a year ago Sharpsville’s single-digit roster of track athletes had the school board weighing whether or not to reduce the program to club or intramural status.
“So a couple kids approached me and said, ‘We need you back,’” Joseph related. “I guess it was a push from the kids.”
This spring the program’s numbers spiked to 60 boys and girls (grades 9-12), and now there is a plan to improve the program’s South Py cinder surface in time for next season.
“There’s grant money to get the track paved. Hopefully, if we get the track paved, we’ll have not only a nice program, but a good facility for it,” Joseph forecasted.
Recruiting the hallways to boost numbers does not explain Sharpsville’s success, though. That would be directly attributable to Joseph’s competitive pride. While helping raise sons Ray and Kobe, 7 and 6 years, respectively, managing her husband Matt’s chiropractic practice, and pursuing a doctoral degree in naturopathy (the science of holistic healing) online from Clayton College, the 30-year-old Joseph basically challenged her charges — daily, sometimes at 6 p.m. owing to her hectic schedule — to beat her in a given event.
“‘If you can beat me at this event, you can skip that.’ I have done that in the past. It makes it a fun day,” she explained, noting impromptu dodgeball games also would mute the monotony of practice regimen.
Joseph is no weekend warrior with a wicked ego reliving her glory days, however.
“It was just giving them knowledge,” Joseph said of her coaching style, which incorporates her personal competitiveness. “I play volleyball, play basketball, play golf and softball in the summer. I can’t give it up. For me, it’s just having fun and letting them know what I know.”
Sharpsville’s student-athletes know this: Joseph was a 4-year letterman in both basketball and track at NCAA Division III Augustana (Ill.) College. After competing as a high-jumper and learning how to hurdle and throw the javelin as an underclassman, Joseph, as a junior, was introduced to the heptathlon, earning All-American honors her senior season. And as a 5-foot-10 post player she still holds three single-game school standards on the hardwood (free throws, field goals, blocked shots).
Not bad for a country girl. She attended Annawan High, “located between Chicago and Iowa, in the middle of nowhere along I-80,” in which there were 125 students, 28 in her graduating class. “But we were very competitive. Everyone did sports,” Joseph related. “My senior year, about 90 kids participated in track. We were very competitive and everybody did a lot.”
She competed in 4x800 relay, high jump, 800-meter run and long jump or, basically, “Coach, where do you want me?”
After meeting her future husband and earning her bachelor’s degree in biology (with a chemistry minor) Joseph moved to Mercer County. At 21, she became Sharpsville’s head coach.
“I was scared out of my wits,” she recalled, “but I just did what my coaches told me. I had good coaches in college — even in high school — and I just did what my coaches did, the same workouts. I’d plan them out. The key was I always worked out with the kids.
“When I took over there were 20-30 kids on the whole team, but over about a 3-year period we’d built that up to about 89 kids,” Joseph continued.
After 6 seasons she stepped aside as Sharpsville’s coach in order to devote more time to her family and hubby’s practice while earning a masters degree in secondary education.
“I started working in (Matt’s) office full time, and I couldn’t be away from (their) kids full time, all the time — they’re still young,” Joseph explained. “It was just getting to be a little much and I just wanted to step down for a while.”
And although Sharpsville’s student-athletes understood, Joseph related to their small-town competitive spirit. The Blue Devils’ demise during her 2-year hiatus prompted her former pupils’ plea for her return.
“That’s what (brought her back). They kept begging me to help them one-on-one, which I had no problem doing that,” she said.
It all came together on Saturday, May 20 at Hickory High’s Hornet Stadium as Sharpsville’s boys finished fourth in Class AA.
“I was not alone,” Joseph explained. “My first six years I had assistants, but none that really had competed before. But Pete Vilasy’s a marathon runner, and Mindy Frazier, in college, was a very, very good runner; she just quit becaue of her health. But they both know what it’s like to compete in college and beyond and they were very motivated and positive. There never was a negative or downside. It makes it a lot easier to go to practice when you’re having a lot of fun with the other coaches, too.
“The kids I had wanted to be there,” Joseph continued. “They worked hard every day in practice, and I never heard complaints; only ‘What do we need to do?’ and ‘Let’s go do it.’ They were just primed for districts. My assistants had them all ready to go so they could be competing at the top level. They couldn’t have peaked at a better time.
“It was neat. Some of the kids — seniors I’d had as freshmen — are just good kids, fun to be around, hard workers, and they stuck it out,” Joseph continued. “We had two bad years and I feel bad that I let them down, but they did come through in the end.”
On Shippensburg University’s statewide stage Sharpsville’s season was silenced as the Blue Devils were denied a single medal or placewinner. However the experience was both a reward for a standout season and should serve as a motivator for a program poised for continued improvement.
“Nobody was really disappointed at states. They were that they didn’t go on further,” Joseph explained, “but they got to watch some of these great athletes. We were like, ‘WOW!’ There were some incredible athletes there; they were running so fast. The kids were just excited to be there with them.
“We had a good run. It was a whole lot of fun. I took two alternates, underclassmen, and one ran, and they want to go again so bad,” Joseph related. “We have a summer program and camp, and I’ll still run 2-3 times a week with a couple of them if I’m able to do it. It’s a never-ending process right now.
“I’m hoping the facility, that they’ll put the (grant) money into it and get the track going, getting it paved so we have a nice facility and can put on some good home meets. You know those things, there’s always a lot of red tape. But we’ll be patient,” Joseph promised.
Sharpsville’s success this season, owing to Joseph, her assistants and some determined Blue Devils, was worth the wait.
By Ed Farrell