Szczechowski wraps up 18 years as Belles coach
Like he has done every afternoon for 18 seasons, coach Larry Szczechowski walked out behind the softball diamond Monday, two underclass athletes following in his footsteps. He lifted the door of a dilapidated, paint-chipped garage on the back of Saint Mary's property and took out equipment for the afternoon practice.
Out of sight from the main doors of Angela Athletic Facility and hidden by the freshly-painted dugouts of the softball field, Szczechowski made small talk with his players about biology finals, about the upcoming MIAA championship meet, about the afternoon's practice. On a makeshift green where two of the field athletes practice javelin and discus, he offered cautious advice, casually supervising, never getting excited.
"Not so high," he called out to freshman Laura Stoeger, who continually pushed the coach's limits by throwing harder. "You don't want a sore arm for Saturday."
But then again, that's Coach Ski — cool, calm and collected. Even at the heels of a Jan. 30 administrative decision that means his 18-year tenure as coach of Belles track and field will end along with the program, his calm demeanor has held the last fragments of the team together. Like he's done for the past 18 years, Coach Ski makes do with what he has — even if there's not much left.
The lone coach for a team of 13, Szczechowski has coached the Belles team flying solo for the past 15 seasons. Spreading himself over the sprinters, the distance runners and the field events, Szczechowski has been a one-man show, driving the team in the school van to away contests and setting up agreements with Notre Dame and St. Joe High School so his athletes can practice on real facilities. When the numbers dwindled on his team, he went out on a recruiting campaign by himself to boost the numbers.
"He is going so far and beyond the resources that Saint Mary's is giving him," said Lyn Kachmarik, director of athletics. "He'd do it for free, but he shouldn't be doing this for free."
Szczechowski is the longest-employed member of the entire Saint Mary's athletic department. He has worked under four separate athletic directors and has been the only stable figurehead of the nine varsity sports that have trouble retaining coaches for longer than three years. With no practice facilities, dwindling roster numbers and low pay, it's hardly the dream coaching job.
But he doesn't care.
"To me, the best thing that ever happens to me in coaching is when an athlete says, `Coach, that's the best I have ever done," he said. "We have people here that over the years have gotten the opportunity for recognition ... it's just the dedication you get out of people and [the] desire to improve."
His attitude is not lost on his athletes, who range from 1999 All-American Stacy Davis to this year's senior captain Kara Bergeman — who wouldn't have even joined the track and field team at Saint Mary's had it not been for Szcechowski's coaching approach.
"He is the only reason why I joined," Bergeman said. "I went to the track meeting freshman year, and wasn't going to sign up. But there was just something about him that said, `It's OK, you'll be able to make it."
For Bergeman and the other athletes on the track and field team, Szczechowski continues to make it OK, arriving early and staying late during scheduled practice times to accommodate athletes with conflicting majors, clubs and commitments. He runs three separate practices a day for the distance runners, the sprinters, and the field events after his full-time job as a physical education teacher for South Bend Public Schools.
But again, he doesn't care.
"It's not that hard," he said. "For any track athlete, you don't need to spend a whole lot of time [practicing.] You can be done in an hour and a half, two hours."
After 18 years of effort — of making do with what he's got — Szczechowski will turn in his varsity coaching towel at the end of this weekend when the Belles track and field team takes to the lanes for the last time. And while he promises to come back to coach his athletes on a club team he wants to start next fall, that doesn't mean he's made his peace with the decision.
"There's a lot that I don't understand as a coach," he said. "They say we need 30-35 [athletes] to be competitive, and that would be great. We would like to be like Calvin, we would like to be like Hope. But Olivet has seven [athletes] ... Adrian has 17, Albion has 17 or 18, Alma has 21 ... we're in the ballpark with those teams."
For the track team to be reinstated, athletic administrators have said that nearly $1 million needs to be poured into the program. But with other construction projects connected with the Master Plan on the horizon, fundraising efforts specifically for the track and field team aren't even a possibility at the moment, said Szczechowski and Kachmarik.
"The timeline is that building project," Szczechowski said. "They told us not to do any fundraising because if we got any big amount of money they would have to talk that person into giving money for the Master Plan."
"The College is very committed to the Master Plan, and athletics is a part of that," Kachmarik said. "If somebody comes along and wants to donate 1 million, people are going to have to sit down and say, `This is what our priorities are.' Of course we need a new athletic facility. But the decisions the College made about the Master Plan were not made lightly."
Still, even after his program was cut, Szczechowski still made do with what he had — and checked into resources of his own. Calling around to contractors who built another local track, he came up with a price tag of his own — $220,000.
"That's a big difference from 5 - 600,000," he said.
Still, as the program nears its own finish line, despite promises from the administration to bring it back, it's hard for the coach who has made do for so long to let go. As the phone still rings in the coach's office with prospective students looking for information about the program, Szczechowski isn't returning the calls anymore.
"They didn't want me to come to Spring Day on Campus [to recruit] so there wouldn't be confusion," he said. "I have [a recruit] I can't even call back — because what do you say to them?"
For a young squad — one that Szczechowski has hand-built with seven freshmen — the future, he thought, was looking bright. Numbers were up, and if projected numbers came through, he expected to add seven or eight more freshmen to the roster next year. Still, with poor retention rates, the program still struggles, churning out a few notable athletes in the MIAA every now and then.
"We don't have a first team or a second team. Everyone is able to compete and that's good," he said. "We wanted to be competitive and have a conference champion — and we've done that. We think we have an outside chance at having a conference champion again this year."
Whether they're the standouts or the bottom half of the lineup, the athletes that sign up for Szczechowski's roster appreciate his effort, and have noticed the toll the decision has taken on the coach — however selfless he is.
"He tries to put up a good front for us ... a mature front," said junior first-year track athlete Jessica Coulter. "He's hurt, I think ... but he's trying to be professional. It's more of a quiet resignation. He knows that there isn't anything he can do."
"My heart goes out to him ... this is his life. I know its going to kill him next year," said junior Erica Burket.
Szczechowski won't let his team think about the end going into the Championships this weekend, however. From the get-go after the decision was made, he told his team they would do one thing: stay competitive, and show Saint Mary's and the MIAA they were competitive. And when the weekend is over, Szczechowski will hang up his varsity coaching career, stop checking his mailbox in Angela for a paycheck, and look to next year when he'll take over the proposed club track program — for free.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, May 2, 2001