To refer to a team as a family in sports is cliché, but that’s what the Brunswick girls track and field program is to Melissa Wojtala.
The veteran coach found out how much she loved guiding the Blue Devils after stepping aside last season to spend time with her immediate family.
While that time was filled with a lot of memories and baseball games all across the state with sons Anthony and Nicholas, she felt she could balance both “families” this spring.
It not only meshed together perfectly, but Wojtala led Brunswick to one of its best seasons in recent memory in being named the Gazette Spring Coach of the Year.
“I tell my girls every day, ‘Thank you for allowing me to come back and making it even better than I thought,’” Wojtala said. “Heck, I even got flowers on Mother’s Day from my girls. Not from my two kids, but my girls. Those little things make you appreciate it more.”
Wojtala, who completed her 18th season, is no stranger to guiding the Blue Devils to success but was unsure what to expect in her first year back.
With eager young talent on the roster, in the preseason the coach was quick to point out how the spring was going to be a rebuilding one.
That word quickly went out the window, as Brunswick found success just weeks in and carried the momentum the rest of the way.
“The girls just kept impressing me,” Wojtala said. “It turned out better than I had planned for, no doubt about it. I have great coaches and great athletes, so the job is pretty easy.”
Wojtala knew she had something special in April at the Amherst Comet Relays, where the Blue Devils posted a convincing 12-point win over rival Strongsville.
She was well aware that distance runners like Gazette MVP Rebecca Craddock and fellow All-Gazette selection Felicia Pasadyn would be consistent scorers with junior hurdler Nellie Bykova, but the young and unproven sprinting corps gave Wojtala the special feeling.
“I knew, for my group, that I’m not going to have too many individual events at this point other than Nellie and the distance girls, but man, I had relays,” she said. “I knew I needed to focus on the relays. I didn’t have any of them say, ‘Hey, I’m a 100 or 200, 400 qualifier,’ so that’s when I knew it was relays that we were going to go for.”
When the postseason came around, Wojtala mixed and matched combinations in sprint relays through the Greater Cleveland Conference and Brunswick Division I District meets, where the Blue Devils took second and third, respectively.
It wasn’t until the Amherst D-I Regional that she found what she wanted.
Boy, did the combinations work.
The 4x400-meter relay of Rachel Mancini, Maddy Neitzel, Nellie Bykova and Heather Craska won in a school-record time of 3:53.48, while Sam Gibson, Craska, Bykova and Neitzel combined for a 48.20 in the 4x1 and the 4x2 of Gibson, Craska, Madison Haynes and Neitzel finished in 1:42.04. The latter two relays took second place in program-record times to advance to the state meet.
That success, along with Craddock and Pasadyn going 1-2 in both of their distance races, helped Brunswick capture the regional championship for the second in two decades. That sent Wojtala to her own personal workout after the 4x4 win, when she ran to meet each member of the relay for a celebratory hug before the team posed for a picture with the regional trophy.
“That’s always been my favorite race, but did I think they could break the school record like that? No,” she said. “That time was very fast, and I really think they were going on emotion.
“It was cool to me because the three girls that already qualified (Neitzel, Bykova and Craska), wanted to make sure they got (Mancini) to state, too. That was cool that they all were trying to her there.”
That’s what a team does, and the Blue Devils, who placed sixth at state, carried those attributes and then some.
“They busted their butts every day at practice, and I kept telling them that there’s a reason why and let’s keep grinding it out,” Wojtala said. “The plan was to peak at regionals, and they really surprised me.”
Contact Dan Brown at email@example.com.