Belles no longer building for the future
For three years, Kara Bergeman gave her life to the track team. She made sacrifices physically, academically and socially for the team. Her senior year was supposed to be the culmination of three years of dedication.
Instead, after athletic director Lyn Kach-marik and college administrators canceled the track and field program at Saint Mary's on Jan. 30, it has been a nightmare.
"What happened this year has killed my senior year," the lone senior on the team said. "I am so angry at the administration and at the College. It has killed my senior year."
Bergeman has been through a lot in her four years as a thrower for the Belles, but nothing prepared her for Kachmarik's announcement. When Bergman talks about end of the program, she can't help but cry.
"It is so incredibly sad," Bergeman said. "We have such talent in our team. All of those girls are so talented and to squelch that is just wrong."
Bergeman is far from the best athlete on the team. She will not challenge for the top spot in the MIAAs this weekend or break any school records. But her dedication to the Belles is unquestionable.
In her freshman year, she injured her knee and missed the entire season. Not once did she throw a discus or heave a shot put. But she also never missed a meet. She hobbled from event to event and meet to meet cheering for teammates. She said watching Belles All-American Stacy Davis, then a junior, fly down the track is one of her favorite memories of college.
Her teammates noticed the freshman's dedication as well.
"One of the juniors turned to me and said `Thank you for coming, it has meant to much to us,'" Bergeman said. "But for me it was nothing. I loved watching my team compete. It was exciting and it mean so much to me."
Her junior year was even more difficult for Bergeman. After ending the 1999 season with 24 athletes and high hopes for even greater improvement in 2000, the Belles instead found themselves with just three athletes competing at the 2000 MIAA Championships. A combination of injuries, academics and frustration slowly whittled the team down to nearly nothing. Even the three captains left the team.
Bergeman believes academics were the main reason the squad lost so many athletes — and eventually the support of the athletic department and the administration.
"Saint Mary's has always said that in the choice between academics and athletics, academics come first," she said. "Because so many athletes put academics first last year, they are punishing us."
Bergeman vowed to keep the team together this year. As the sole senior captain, she wanted to help her team overcome academic pressures and compete in the MIAA Championships — even if they did fall on the weekend before finals again. With a talented group of freshmen and several enthusiastic newcomers, Bergeman was prepared to rebuild the program for the future
But when the administration pulled the funding from the team, her senior year suddenly changed. This year was no longer about building for the future. There was no future.
Despite all her anger and sadness, Bergman said she could not leave the program, could not walk away from something she had dedicated three years of her life to — even if it was on its deathbed.
"We all said there is now way we were leaving now," she said.
Bergeman's dedication seems to fill her teammates as well. Not a single player quit after Kachmarik's announcement. Some have battled back from past injuries, some are still struggling through injuries but they all have one goal — to compete at the MIAAs.
"This year we've had so many girls coming out and sticking with it," said Laura Graf, who transferred to Saint Mary's from Augustana College this year. "We wanted to prove we have the girls who want to compete. We don't care what happened in the past. We are stronger this year."
Graf is one of four athletes that coach Larry Szczechowski said chose Saint Mary's partly because of its track and field program.
Laura is another. The freshman javelin thrower came to Saint Mary's hoping to compete in the heptathalon. But three stress fractures in her legs limited her to competing only in field events. She would almost certainly injury herself worse if she ran, and still runs a greater risk of injury in the throwing events.
"I am not supposed to be doing anything right now," she said. "My parents aren't too happy. The trainer isn't too happy. But I have to compete in the conference. I feel like I would be letting my teammates down if I didn't try."
There are plenty of other stories of injured athletes pushing themselves to compete this year. Sophomore Whitney Ross missed her freshman season with an injury but will compete this year.
Szczechowski thought Kemi Adebamowo would miss the entire season with a knee injury but the freshman rehabilitated her knee and is ready to compete.
Other athletes will push themselves further than they ever have before.
Junior Erica Burket has been the workhorse for the Belles all year.
She has regularly competed in four events and this weekend will add the 4x400 relay to her repertoire. But with no chance for tomorrow, Burket does not care how tired she might get.
"I know it will be tough the second day but I want to do everything I can to help the team because this will probably be my last chance," Burket said.
Graf is probably the only athlete with a chance to compete after this weekend. If she runs a fast enough time in the 800, she could qualify for the NCAA Division III Championships.
Next year, when the track team will be reduced to club status at best, no matter how fast she runs, she cannot qualify for NCAAs.
"We are looking for good things from her and we think she can set a school record," Szczechowski said. "But next year, there will be no where for her to go. She can't qualify. She can compete at meets but she won't get the recognition she deserves."
Bergeman jokes that she sticks with the team for the recognition. She claims she came back for a fourth year to claim the watch that four-year athletes receive. She cries when she talks about the end of the program and anger fills her voice when she talks about the future that will never be.
If she were an underclassman, she is not sure she would even come back to school next year.
"I feel fortunate that I don't have to come back next year," the senior said. "I am so angry with the administration right now that I am not sure I would come back."
But upon further reflection, Bergeman would still join the team.
"But in reality, I am in it for the girls and for the love," she said. "This year has not been disappointing at all."
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, May 2, 2001