The county's athletes have established a long history

By Brian King Record-Courier staff correspondent Published:

The county's athletes have established a long history of excellence in the realm of distance running.

Numerous state championships and All-Ohio performances have marked the seasons of the past. The 2000 State Track and Field championships in Dayton followed that tradition.

"The county is a hotbed and people see it here (Dayton), no question," said Woodridge girls coach Jeff Howard. "Cincinnati is the best in Division I, but in Division II and III, there is no question northeast Ohio is where it is at."

Portage athletes continued their dominance this weekend as area runners captured four state titles and six other All-Ohio finishes (top 8) at Dayton's Welcome Stadium.

"I don't know, maybe it's in the water or something," said Paul Vincent of Garfield.

Vincent earned one of the state titles, winning the Division III 3,200 race with a personal-best time.

The win by Vincent was just the beginning for area runners. Justin Biltz of Rootstown took home All-Ohio accolades with his fifth-place finish behind Vincent in the Division III 3,200-meter race.

In Division II, James Sjostrom of Aurora took center stage. The senior put on quite a show as he effortlessly claimed the state championship in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter events.

Emily Mars of Field won the state title in the Division II 3,200-meter run and finished the 1,600 meters in fifth to join her teammate, Shanna Craig, who placed fourth, as All-Ohio in the event.

Several other area athletes competed in the state meet in the distance events. Craig finished ninth in the 3,200 and teamed with Mars, Michelle Muth and Kathy Shell to finish seventh and earn All-Ohio status in the 4x800 relay on Friday.

The county was also well-represented in the Division I contest.

Kent Roosevelt's 4x800 relay team of Ofer Barniv, Aaron Emig, Mike Schnee and Nathan Brothers earned All-Ohio honors, finishing seventh in the Division I race. Barniv followed his All-Ohio work on the relay team with an equally impressive seventh-place finish in the 800 meters.

Erin Anderson joined the Kent celebration, as she finished sixth in the 800 meters to be named All-Ohio as well.

So why is Portage County such a hotbed for distance runners? It depends on who you ask.

If you ask the athletes, the answer is simply their coaching.

"I guess all the good coaches move to Portage County," said Mars. "Coach (Bill) Huntington is the greatest, no matter what he says about me."

Vincent echoed Mars' sentiment.

"We have good coaches around here, and they don't get near the credit they deserve," he said. "(Garfield coach) John Bennett is really good, and he's a great guy. He really cares about us, and it's easy to run for a guy like that."

If you ask the coaches, though, the success of the county lies in the work ethic of its runners.

"The tradition is there for Portage County," said Rootstown boys coach Larry Bailey. "Distance kids can get good by working very hard, just like in wrestling. It is no surprise that the county is also very good at wrestling."

Bennett noted both the experience of area coaches and the work ethic of the kids, but also highlighted the efforts of local parents.

"There is quite a bit of longevity of coaches in our area, and it is a sport that takes a lot of self-motivation," said Bennett. "We come from an area where the parents get involved and play a big part in the success of their kids. That is very important. It really helps our program."

Huntington chimed in on the topic as well, sighting the work ethic of the kids by using the example of Craig.

"Some areas have sprinters or field-event kids, but Portage County has distance runners," said Huntington. "There really is a lot of room for you to improve in the distances.

"Take Shanna for example. Shanna was a 6:21 miler as a freshman, and now there she is butting heads with the best in the state. It really shows you what hard work can do."

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