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INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Natural talent propelled Stefan

by on May 10, 2014 10:39 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Joe Renosky.

 

In hindsight, Michael Stefan is thankful his daughter didn’t heed his advice, at least one piece of it. Otherwise, she might still be paying off her student loans.

“Yeah, you could say that,” he says with a chuckle.

Some 17 years ago, when he tried to discourage her from joining her high school track and field team as a freshman, Lindsey Stefan didn’t listen and joined the Homer-Center track team anyway.

She was already playing varsity basketball and volleyball as a freshman, and adding a third sport to her commitments seemed excessive to her father. She really surprised him when she said she wanted to try the high jump, one of the most technical events in track and field.

“She told me she was going to be a high jumper. I said, ‘High jumper?’” Michael Stefan recalled. “‘I know you can jump, you’re a good rebounder, but high jumping?’ She said, ‘They had me doing some jumping exercises in the hall and they thought I could be a good candidate to be a high jumper.’ That’s about how it all started.”

What followed was a stellar eight-year career in track and field that eventually overshadowed her prowess on the basketball court, and one can see why.

Stefan won two state titles in the high jump while at Homer-Center.

She won six conference titles in college at St. Francis.

And she earned the equivalent of a full college scholarship to compete at the Division I level.

“I didn’t get a free ride,” Stefan said. “The track team doesn’t generally do that, but based on merit and performance both academically and athletically, I got the equivalent.”

“It was almost like I could kick myself in the pants,” Michael Stefan said. “I was trying to encourage her not to go out for track, but that backfired on me. It was a good thing. I felt pretty silly for trying to encourage her not to go out for track, but it turned into a real good thing.”

“Goes to show how much I know, huh?”

But all’s well that ends well, and things turned out pretty rosy for Lindsey Stefan, one of eight individuals who will be inducted into this year’s class of the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame at the annual banquet and induction ceremony on May 18.

At 32, Stefan is one of the youngest inductees ever. She made the cut in her first year of eligibility.

“My dad was really adamant and was just kind of like, ‘You’re already playing basketball, you’re playing volleyball, playing summer softball, maybe you don’t want to burn yourself out,’” she said. “I said, ‘I’ll try it.’ I went to the first couple practices and caught on pretty fast and started going to meets and winning meets and eventually, going to states.

“My dad says, ‘That was the most misguided information I could have ever given you. It turned out I was wrong.’”

o o o

In the sports arena, Stefan was a natural.

Whether it was basketball, volleyball or track and field — or any other sport she might have chosen, her former coaches say — she would have excelled in each one.

“She could have played Ping-Pong and she would have been good at it,” Tom Dixson, Stefan’s high school basketball coach at Homer-Center, said.

“She was one of the easiest athletes to coach I’ve ever had,” said Eric Foust, Stefan’s high jump coach at Homer-Center. “With her it was just a matter of refining the little things. The rest came so easy. It worked for her. She was a natural.”

Former Homer-Center head track and field coach Rick Foust, Eric’s father, agreed with that assessment. But there was more to it than just being a natural talent. Although her talent always set her apart from most of her peers in all three sports, Stefan’s work ethic was second to none, her coaches recalled.

“The reason that’s true — she was a natural — but the reason it’s true is because she was willing to work so hard,” Rick Foust said. “And the other thing about her, Lindsey was tenacious. She had the mentality of, ‘OK, this is my job, and this is what I need to do,’ She always went out and got it done. … If her job on the basketball court was to get a rebound, she was going to get it. You were giving the odds on her getting it because that was her job. That’s what she was supposed to do.

“I think if we would have told Lindsey she was running the mile, after she got done crying, she’d probably go out and run a great mile. But she’s just such a great worker. She’d do anything you asked her to do.”

“I coached (basketball) at Homer-Center for 18 years,” Dixson said, “and of all the players that I saw come through there, Lindsey was just the hardest working. That immediately set her apart, even as a freshman. And with her skills and quickness, she came right into her own.”

Basketball was Stefan’s first love. She started playing AAU basketball in seventh grade and showed great potential from an early age. She worked her way into the starting lineup at Homer-Center as a freshman.

It didn’t take her long to come into her own in the high jump, either. Stefan caught on and mastered the tenets of one of the most highly technical events in the sport rather quickly.

“I caught on pretty fast. I don’t think I ever felt awkward doing it,” she said. “I don’t even remember exactly how (Eric Foust) taught the form. I helped coach track for about four, five years a little while ago. Even for me to try to teach kids or show kids, it was hard. I feel like it’s something you either can do or you can’t do. … It’s a natural thing.”

Stefan always had it.

Rick Foust recalled one of the first practices Stefan attended, when she cleared heights of 4 feet, 4 inches and 4-6 with ease. Then, she sailed over the bar at 5-0 on her first attempt, and the Foust father-son coaching combo knew they had something special.

“I had no clue,” she said. “I remember winning the meets. That was fun. I was just going along with it, and then I got to districts and I qualified for states, and I thought, Oh, I guess it’s kind of a big deal.”

And it really hit her when she jumped a personal-best 5-5 at her first state meet as a freshman to earn a fourth-place medal.

“I have no clue where that came from,” she said of her jump of 5-5. “I think it was just maybe an adrenaline rush, but kind of realizing, maybe, maybe I can hang with these girls. I just remember that. I still had no clue at that point how important it was or how significant it was. I learned quickly after that.”

o o o

Admittedly, Stefan wasn’t head-over-heels in love with track, like basketball, when she first took it up.

“It was nothing I ever truly looked forward to doing,” she said. “I still did it. I high jumped but I also entered the javelin, I did the 4-by-1, I did the 4-by-4. I kind of tried everything, but that one just stuck with me.”

Of course, winning makes everything fun, and Stefan did a whole lot of that.

She nearly went undefeated in the high jump in high school. Not counting the state meet, Stefan lost only once, when she took third at the 1999 District 6 meet as a junior. She cleared 5 feet, 4 inches that day, the same height the winner cleared, but took third with a higher number of total misses.

Knowing she would see the two girls who finished ahead of her at the state meet, Stefan had a renewed sense of purpose to prove her loss at the district meet was a fluke. And she never lost again.

She won the first of her two state titles 10 days later and never slowed down as a senior, enjoying an undefeated season that she capped with her second straight state title.

“I lost the district meet my junior year, and that’s what pushed me the most, was that I lost that meet,” Stefan said. “That was honestly the first meet besides states that I ever lost. I was so angry at myself, and I knew the two girls who beat me were going to be at states, and I just had it in my mind, All right, I have to beat them. That’s truly what I think pushed me for that state meet.”

With the memory of losing her district title on misses still fresh in her mind, Stefan focused on limiting her misses at the state meet.

“I remember being seeded fairly high that year, and I was very consistent at making jumps on my first attempt,” Stefan said. “So I just kind of kept it in my mind, as long as I just keep getting over my first attempt, first attempt, I’ll be good. I think I might have missed one and made it on my second attempt as we were getting closer to 5-5.”

She jumped 5-5 at the PIAA Championships on May 28, 1999, to claim her first state title.

“I do remember clearing it and waiting to see if anybody else did it, and it was a huge sense of relief. I was excited. My parents were there.

“I look back on it now, and I really wish I would have tried to jump higher. After I jumped 5-5 and knew that I won, then, the competitive nature in me just kind of went away. I was like OK, OK, I’m good, 5-5. I don’t really have to jump any higher. I look back on it now and I wish I would have put more effort into it. I think it was just a sense of relief. But those are long events. Those things last three, four hours.”

She won her second title at the PIAA Championships with a matching jump of 5-5 on May 26, 2000.

Stefan’s pages-long list of accomplishments includes four straight Indiana County Meet titles; four straight West Central Coaches’ Meet titles; four straight Appalachian Conference titles; and three District 6 titles, among others.

She never lost in a dual meet, and the hiccup at the district meet her junior year was her only loss in the high jump outside of state competition in her four-year high school career.

She took fourth with a jump of 5-5 her freshman year, and she placed seventh by clearing 5-2 the following year, earning medals both season.

o o o

Despite all her accomplishments in high school, Stefan arrived at St. Francis unsure of herself, not convinced she belonged at the top level of college track and field. But the self-doubt started to dissipate a few months into her career, when she won her first Northeast Conference indoor high jump title.

She went on to win six of those, three indoors and three outdoors, from 2001 to 2003, and she still holds the indoor and outdoor school records in the high jump at St. Francis, both set in 2002 during her sophomore year. She jumped 5-8 indoors and 5-8¼ outdoors.

“You have that moment where you’re like I don’t know if I’m going to be able to compete with everybody on this level,” she said, “and then getting there and seeing that I could, it was kind of like, OK, I think I can do this. And I think it was honestly going to my first indoor NEC meet and winning that, that’s truly when I started to realize that it’s a big deal, I’m kind of in elite company and looking forward to what was ahead of me.”

What was ahead of her was a lot of traveling. She also took part in some of the most prestigious competitions on the East Coast.

“My sophomore year jumping against a girl, she jumped for Harvard, and she jumped in the Olympics for Hungary,” Stefan said. “Just being in that kind of company was really, really cool. Going to Penn Relays, going to the ECAC meets in Boston and in Princeton, those were big meets.”

Stefan posted a pair of top-five finishes at the Penn Relays her sophomore and junior years. She took third as a sophomore in 2002 and fourth the next year. She placed in the top 10 at the ECAC Championships at the indoor and outdoor meets as a sophomore, and she also won the Duke University Relays that season.

One of her proudest accomplishments, Stefan earned academic All-American status as a senior in 2004.

But some of her most memorable moments in college came off the track, with her track family.

“Going down to Duke. I remember being on the Duke campus,” she recalls, “right after the (men’s basketball team) won the national championship, in 2001, and I met Carlos Boozer. I had my picture taken with him. That was a big deal for me, being the basketball lover that I am.

“I was usually the only female traveling and it was me and a group of guys. They were just a fun bunch of people. I really enjoyed that part of it more than the meets themselves. It’s like you have your own little separate family that you got along with because you spend so much time with them.”

o o o

When Stefan went to St. Francis to compete in track and field, it might have come as a surprise to some local fans and observers.

“Basketball, by far, was my favorite sport,” she said without hesitation. “Then I would say volleyball and then track. Track was kind of the last one in the whole mix.”

And in the conscience of the local sports fans, she was Lindsey the basketball player, first and foremost.

The same one who scored 1,589 points and held the Homer-Center school scoring record when she graduated in 2000. The one who pulled down nearly 1,000 career rebounds and was named the All-Gazette Girls’ Basketball player of the year two straight years, in 1998 and 1999.

“Lindsey was a very, very good basketball player,” Rick Foust said. “There was a time when a lot of people thought that was just the direction Linds was going to go and that’s what she’s going to do. She’s going to be a basketball player. And then she got involved in track.”

“I truly always pictured myself playing basketball in college,” Stefan said. “That was my goal, especially my sophomore and junior years, everything was working out. I think a lot of people remember the basketball part.”

But when you win back-to-back state titles in the high jump, it’s hard to not get noticed and attract college recruiters.

“It got to a point in basketball, she played AAU and she would shine,” her father said. “She’s the type of person that would always rise to the talent level she had to play at. Around here, basketball isn’t as tough as a lot of areas in some people’s eyes, so track started to override that. But when you go and win states, it supersedes basketball somewhat. She could have played basketball. … A lot of the offers that came in the mail and interest and the phone calls, there was basketball, but the bulk of it was track, was the high jumping.

“When she played AAU, she would always rise to the occasion, to the competition that she played against. I know she could have done it, but it just wasn’t going to happen. It was the track that really took over.”

As a high school sophomore in 1998, Stefan became the first Homer-Center girls’ player to garner the All-Gazette player of the year honor. Then, she did it again the next season, and she broke the 1,000-point mark during her junior season.

As a senior, she broke Sherri Leysock’s school scoring record of 1,406 points on Jan. 13, 2000, and stood alone atop the school’s scoring list, in boys’ and girls’ basketball, with 1,589 points when she graduated.

Only Katelyn Skinner and Stefanie Zoldak have surpassed her total since. Skinner, a 2012 graduate, holds the top spot with 1,766 points. Zoldak finished with 1,661 from 2000-2004.

Stefan averaged 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game as a senior.

For her career, she averaged 16.6 points per game. She piled up 971 career rebounds (10.1 per game), 219 steals (2.3), 138 assists (1.4) and 322 blocks (3.4) in her career.

Homer-Center never made a deep playoff run, something Stefan regrets, but the Wildcats went 70-30 in her four years.

“It was always great to get that recognition and to know that was how most of the coaches felt,” Stefan said of the personal accolades. “But when I look back, I wanted us so badly to make it to the state finals. It didn’t really matter to me what I got. That stuff didn’t matter. I wanted to win. I wanted to win and I wanted to go as far as we could in the playoffs. But it never really panned out for us. I don’t think we ever made it to interdistricts.”

o o o

Letting go wasn’t easy for Stefan.

From ninth grade, she was a year-round athlete, first as a three-sport athlete in high school, and then, as a Division I athlete, which required a year-round commitment.

Stefan loved it. She thrived on it. She firmly believes it helped her learn time-management and other lifelong skills.

“I truly attribute a lot of my time management and success to the fact that I was able to play sports,” she said. “It forces you to stay on track and keep up with your studying and grades. Track helped me with that. If I hadn’t been a three-sport athlete, I honestly wouldn’t have known what to do with myself or with my time.”

But when it was all over, it left a big void in her life. She fills the void by working out daily, playing in a recreational beach volleyball league, running an occasional 5K. But it took a while to accept it.

“That was like a shock to your system,” Stefan said. “You go eight years of your life, competing and training, your body is used to it. Mentally, you’re used to it. One of my biggest goals in college was to become an academic All-American, and I worked my butt off studying. Meets took up every single weekend from October until usually after school, in June. I was on the go, pretty much taking 18 credits every semester, trying to make the most of it. It takes over your life.

“And then to go from eight years of that to nothing. It was hard. It was really, really hard.”

Never one to enjoy the spotlight that came with the territory, Stefan credits those closest to her for the success she had.

“I know this is about me, but I give a lot of my coaches and my teammates the credit,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, there’s no way I’d be getting any of the recognition today. And my parents, major influences. … My mom and sister and my dad were my No. 1 fans. My sister, when she found out this was going to happen, she texted me and said, ‘All my dreams are coming true.’ And my grandpa, he was at every basketball game, every track meet. I feel bad he passed away, about seven years ago. I just feel bad he doesn’t get to see this because this would have meant a lot to him.”

“I always tried to bring her up that way, she was never full of herself,” her father said. “None of the coaches ever said that. She was never cocky or the type that said a lot or would expect special treatment. Just a really good all-around athlete but didn’t throw it in anybody’s face. She was always very humble, I thought. A lot of people thought that, whereas some people get a little carried away with that sort of notoriety, but she never did. I was always proud of her for that.”



Mirza Zukic is a sports writer that primarily covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and is the Gazette's track and field beat writer.
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