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These Rams are the best ever

After countless heartbreaks and second-place finishes, Ridgewood finally wins a regional title.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- In 15 seasons as head coach, Sue Vien has fielded track teams that have won 14 Sunshine Athletic Conference and 12 district championships. Countless ribbons and medals have passed from her hands to her athletes, and she has never failed to take them to the state meet. She has mothered what is arguably the most dominant sports program in the county.

Which has created one problem: When asked which of her teams was her best, she has trouble answering.

Now she doesn't need to. This year's team decided to answer for her Thursday night, winning the school's first regional track title after a series of heartbreaks.

"You don't know how many times I've been asked what is the best team," Vien said. "It's so hard to say because so many great things stick out. But I told the girls now there's no doubt, they are going to be considered the best of the best, until this comes around again, or if it comes around again.

"Right now, they are up on a pedestal."

Or cloud nine, considering the monumental achievement for a program that has finished second a half dozen times at regional meets and has failed to translate its county dominance statewide.

The Rams finished with 107.5 points, defeating second-place Riverview (78.5) and third-place Lakewood (77) -- the same Spartans who extended Ridgewood's regional misery last year by swiping first and leaving the Rams as runners-up. Ridgewood won in typical fashion -- blanket every event and try to score points even if you can't win them.

It wasn't easy, but when has it been at this level for Vien's crew? With 17 athletes going to regionals, she expected another tight battle. After her team failed to meet her expectations in the field events, she had her doubts.

"I was a little concerned," Vien said. "We were a little weak coming out of the field events, and I kept hearing Lakewood, Lakewood, Lakewood with all their jumpers scoring points. I was just a wee bit worried."

After a season of winning most meets by laughable margins, the Rams bore down once the action focused on the track.

In started in the 800 meters, when the first star of the night emerged.

Ahead by 10 points, Vien knew her team needed every bit of cushion it could muster considering the Spartans were likely to clean up in the 200. Running in the slow heat (runners with the ninth- to 16th-best times), Jessica McNichols won going away. Typically, that would be good enough for ninth place and zero points, but McNichols ran the race of her life and her personal-best time was good enough for fifth place and four points.

In the 3200, freshman Sarah Penokie did McNichols one better. Running her best race, she went out strong and settled into fifth place. Then she passed teammate Lizzie Sheridan, and each time a runner made a charge, such as Gulf's Barbara Carr, Penokie incredibly found an extra gear to pull away and hold onto the spot where she would shockingly finish.

"Then at the 300 mark, she takes off like nobody's business," Vien said. "It was unbelievable."

Vien has dozens of stories just like Penokie's. If you let her, she can take up your entire day sharing them.

"Just tell me when to shut up," she said.

Though the team bus returned to New Port Richey at 4 a.m., and Vien was awakened by the phone, she too found an extra gear when recapping her team's victory.

"Then we got to the 4x400," she said, "knowing Lakewood was going to win it because they had the best 4x100 team and that's usually how that works."

At the time, the Rams had the lead but couldn't afford to finish too far behind the Spartans. And there was the unfinished business of getting senior Margarita Salas qualified for state. The other seniors -- Lizzy Leigh, Nancy Edwards, Jessica Penokie and McNichols -- had already earned their trips in addition to high jumper Shawna Luikart. Salas had one more chance.

"She has got to go to the state meet with us," Vien recalled her team saying. "I knew then I didn't have to say anything to them."

Michelle Cotharin ran the first leg and the Rams were in fourth place. Salas ran her split in 1:01 to keep them there, and sophomore Jen Hayes "shot out like a locomotive" on the third leg and did the same. That left it in Leigh's hands, and though she'd already run the 800 and 1,600, arguably the greatest runner in Ridgewood history finished off the event in 4:14.99.

The time was five seconds better than the quartet had run all season. Salas had her state berth. The Rams had their regional championship.

"The girls dug down deep, like Sarah did, like Margarita did," Vien said. "Those are the kind of people you need to win those kind of meets."

Vien has had teams with more potential. One year, she took more than 20 athletes to the regional meet. And when Char Foster was running, Vien had one of the greatest track stars in state history at her disposal.

But there was always something, most notably nemesis and state power Sanford Seminole, or injuries to stars like Foster and Fannie Holmes in the same promising 1998 season.

It was that year that Edwards, Leigh, Penokie and Salas stepped in to carry the Rams to conference and district titles. That year, they laid the foundation for Thursday's performance.

"Great chemistry," Vien said. "Great leadership."

And pretty good coaching. Vien always has the biggest and best teams, and there is a reason for that. Her knowledge and persuasive skills have built the girls track program into something fun and desirable to be a part of, something even football teams have trouble doing these days.

She also has shown a knack for making her 30 or 40 or 50 Rams believe that winning events isn't always as important as contributing. So when Salas finished seventh in the 800, the focus was on the two points she added to the team score.

"Sure, it was two measly points," Vien said. "Some kids, if they aren't going to finish in the top four and go to state, will just let up. Our kids know better. You take Margarita's two measly points, and you put them with someone else's measly two points and someone else's measly two points ..."

You get a regional champion.

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