PHOTO COURTESY OF DENISE BUECHNER
The Bensalem High School softball squad, shown here during last year’s 11–8 season, started its season on Monday against Central Bucks East.
By Mike Gibson
For the Wire
Holding a clipboard and doing some fast calculations, head coach Mary Ellen Malloy got her Bensalem boys’ relay team together before the final event at an important meet a month ago.
“Our coach stopped us before the last event and said we needed four points to win it,” said Brad Rivera, who ran the lead-off leg of the 4×400-meter race. “We knew what we had to do, but we were confident we could do it.”
The stakes at the Pennsylvania State Track and Field Coaches Association indoor track and field championships could not have been higher. Those four points represented a team state title.
Bensalem finished second to Pennridge in that relay event, but got five team points, more than enough to clinch the state team title.
The Owls finished ahead of second-place Garnet Valley and third-place Pennridge. LaSalle High was fourth.
“It was an awesome feeling to be state champions,” said Rivera, who took home an individual title of his own, the open 800. Malloy needed just three fingers to signal the number of state championships Bensalem has won in any sport.
“Just three, all in track,” she said. “Bensalem shared the 1987 outdoor title with Glen Mills, won the indoor title in 2004 and won it again this year.”
That was back on Feb. 23, when the boys went down to the last event on the last day.
“It’s just an awesome feeling to know that there are so many teams in the state competing in the sport and have that knowledge that you are the best,” Malloy said. “It’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment and very exciting.”
Now, the excitement is tangible for the spring season.
“We had our biggest turnout ever,” Malloy said. “Even when we won it in 2004, we didn’t have this kind of interest from the kids. We had 80 [athletes] out and we had 72 last year.”
The goal this spring is “to repeat it as state outdoor champions,” Rivera said.
“Sometimes, what happens indoors doesn’t translate to the outdoor season, but we really have a strong team. We won the Suburban One League (championship) last year. The expectations are to repeat and get the outdoor state title as well as the indoor one and this just gives us the confidence that we can do it.”
Bensalem indoor track came a long way in one season. The Owls finished 70th in the 2011–2012 season.
“Honestly, the difference was that the kids started to believe in themselves,” Malloy said.
“I knew the seniors were a very talented bunch to begin with and I think, last year, they were in a position they were never in before and were a little apprehensive.”
Rivera was a big part of the resurgence.
After finishing in ninth place last year at the indoor 800, he was able to improve that to a first-place finish. His title in the 800 wasn’t the only individual gold won by the Owls, as Qhyle Elijah took first in the 400 and the Owls’ 4×800-meter team of Rivera, Matt French, Kyle Francis and Pratik Patel also finished first.
The group of four runners who performed under the enormous pressure of the state’s final event were Rivera, Elijah, Francis and Kerron Holley.
Winning the state title indoors is often considered more difficult than the outdoor one in that schools of all sizes are lumped together and the talent pool is deeper. Private schools, as well as PIAA schools, compete indoors. Only PIAA schools are allowed to compete in the spring championships.
“I like it that way, with the better competition,” Malloy said of the indoor season. “It really brings out the best in you. During the outdoor season, you don’t get to face some of the quality of runners that some of the smaller schools have.”
In the spring, the schools are categorized according to enrollment. Coaching boys has not proven to be a problem for Malloy, who took home her second state “Coach of the Year” award at the states. She also won in 2004.
“I find it a lot easier to coach boys,” she said. “You can challenge them and I find that they tend to accept some of the challenges more than some of — not all — the girls do.”
The fact that the school has not won much on a state-wide level was a challenge when Malloy first took over the head coaching job, she said.
“Bensalem is not known for winning on that level and you have to teach them how to win,” she said. “They know now.”
While the team had a climate-controlled 72 degrees during the indoor season, the spring practices have been cold.
“It stinks,” Malloy said.
“It hasn’t really held us back,” Rivera said. “We know everybody has to deal with it. We know it will eventually get better.”