It was a track meet. The state track meet, sure, but it’s not like it was life and death. Except to Elyria High sophomore Betty Halliburton, it sure felt like it.
“I could feel the feet of the girl from Columbus South pounding right behind me,” said Halliburton, remembering the anchor leg she ran in the 1977 Class AAA 880-yard sprint medley relay at Ohio State. “You’re fearless when you’re young and excited. I was running for my life. That was the way I felt. I literally was running for my life. The moment I hit the tape the (Columbus South) anchor (Sherry Brown) comes running by me. She was one of the (top) 440-yard runners in the state.”
But not that day. That day belonged to the Elyria Pioneers.
Betsy Riccardi, a senior, and Tammy (Porter) Derrico, a junior, teamed up with Halliburton and Gloria (Barbee) Motley, another sophomore, to win the state title that day in record time (1:49.1). Columbus South (1:49.2) was second and Dayton Chaminade-Julienne took third (1:49.8).
The relay team will be enshrined in the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame tonight along with Jon Laird, Lindsay Anderson Brown, Duane Hawkins, Tom Kubuski and Brianne McLaughlin at Lorain County Community College’s Spitzer Center. The late Steve Kaminski will be honored by the group with the Distinguished Service Award.
The state title was the first for the Elyria girls track team.
“It was a very intense day,” Halliburton said. “The moment I walked into the stadium was literally a moment I’ll never forget. It was a day you could hear the roaring crowds but at the same time when I was running it was like almost you could hear a pin drop. We had done so well during the season. We were already ranked. It was about us making sure that we seal the deal.”
Although the Pioneers were one of the favorites, they weren’t necessarily No. 1. Elyria ran a 1:51.7 to defeat Admiral King (1:52.4) and Bay (1:52.8) at the Amherst district meet, but Bay turned in a meet-record 1:50.1 to upset Elyria (1:51.0) at the Kent regional.
But Elyria wasn’t about to be denied at state.
Barbee and Riccardi handled the first two 100-yard legs of the relay with Porter running the 220-yard third leg and Halliburton the 440-yard final leg.
“I always felt comfortable about my team,” Halliburton said. “One thing I could say about that 1977 team was we knew how to seal the deal. We were competing in some of the bigger relay meets around the state like the Comet Relays and the Toledo Blade Relays. When I got that baton I felt comfortable in knowing that they did the very best they could to give me what I needed to finish. That’s what mattered to me.”
Porter, likewise, was confident Elyria could win it all.
“That definitely was a great year,” she said. “It started off with the basketball season. We were all members of the basketball team. ... From basketball we went straight into track. All of us were pretty much in great condition. We were ready. We were determined to go all the way. We knew we had what it took to go all the way. We put our effort in there.”
Judy Gibson was the coach and Tom Below the assistant. But rules were a bit different back then and all sports teams were required to have a faculty member as coach. Below essentially ran the program, the team members agreed.
“Coach Below really pushed us,” Porter said. “He gave us pep talks. He kept us motivated, kept us on the straight track. We all knew what each other could do. … We were just ready. We knew our handoffs. We knew our steps. We were just determined that year.”
Porter suffered a pulled right quad earlier in the season and though she didn’t miss any meets she re-aggravated it at the regional meet. As a result, she had to win a 100-yard run-off with teammate Rhonda Ransom to cement her spot on the relay.
“All of our high school years were memorable because we had such competitive women,” Barbee said. “Our coaches never had to prod or push anyone. We were all very hard workers and wanted to be winners. We did whatever it took to be able to compete at our highest level. We never had to worry about our stick work because our coach was great at making sure our steps were the best that they could be. No one was ever going to beat us because we weren’t going to have our sticks on. All of us had that unstoppable mentality. We were coached and we worked hard to make it to state and it was worth it.”
Barbee still hasn’t forgotten the emotion she felt standing atop the state championship award platform.
“Of course when you get up on that podium you’re kind in awe,” Barbee said. “You see all the people. It’s just a surreal moment. All that work you put in to accomplish your goal, and being a sophomore it created that hunger of wanting to get back.”
The 880-yard title made up for a disappointing second-place finish later in the meet by the Pioneers’ previously unbeaten mile relay of Riccardi, Halliburton, Ransom and Tina Brown.
Upper Arlington ran a meet-record 3:57.8 to stun Elyria, which had a 3:59.6.
“We were going that whole year with our sights on winning the mile relay championship,” Riccardi said. “The goal all year was to win the 4x440. It was great that we won the medley relay. The atmosphere and the environment with the track team was a real family. The boys and the girls teams, the coaches were amazing and supportive. They were our biggest cheerleaders.”
Halliburton, Barbee, Riccardi and Porter also earned additional All-Ohio honors (top six) later in the meet with a sixth-place finish in the 440 relay (49.7).
“Most of us in the team were south side girls so most of us went to elementary school at Hamilton and junior high school together at Franklin,” Riccardi said. “And just the team, Tom Below, Mr. (Bob) Slager, Jon Lauber and Margaret Cough … they were great coaches. We were fortunate to have such great people.
“We were a group of athletes that just went from one sport to the next to the next.”
The top times of the sprint medley (1:47.1) and mile relay (3:57.8) that season remain school records.
“We were total athletes,” Riccardi said. “That’s what we did. Sports is what kept me interested in school. What I looked forward to all day was practice. The name on the jerseys that year was Pioneer Women. We weren’t the Lady Pioneers or Pioneerettes, we were the Pioneer Women. That’s pretty significant in 1977. We wore those uniforms with great pride. It was special for us.”
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