When you start to put together a list of the standout athletes to be a part of the WPIAL, its a who’s who of some of the greatest to ever participate in high school athletics anywhere in the country. The names are legendary and you spend hours listing them, many who went on to greatness at the collegiate and professional levels. Some are household names, Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett, Arnold Palmer, Susie McConnell-Serio, Swin Cash, and Olympic medalist Lauryn Williams. How about Bill Fralic, Norm Van Lier, Darrelle Revis, Dejaun Blair, Stan Musial or the one and only Dick Groat? You’re right, I am just scratching the surface, its amazing when you start listing them, it goes on and on…
Another local athlete is putting together a resume of excellence that could rightfully place her in the same breath as many of the other greats we have been blessed to have in the WPIAL. Its not a household name to the average sports fan in Pittsburgh, but its a name you absolutely should know…Her name is Brianna Schwartz…
At first glimpse, Schwartz might not initially strike you as one of the top athletes in the area, she is reserved, and her quiet demeanor could easily fool those who have never watched her compete. However, anyone that has will tell you she has a killer instinct and will to compete that’s second to none, and her willingness to work to be the best makes her one of the top distance runners in the United States. She is the two time WPIAL Champion in Cross Country including setting a WPIAL course record this past October. After a top 5 finish at States, she recently finished 6th overall against the best runners in the country in the prestigious Foot Locker XC Championships in San Diego.
In Track, her lists of accomplishments is just as impressive. Last May, after winning WPIAL titles in the 800 and 1600 meters (both in WPIAL record times of 2:10.38 and 4:47.07) she blew away a field of the best milers in the state to win her first State Championship, in a time of 4:50.05. What’s more, the Junior Cross Country and Track standout from Shaler High School seems to only be getting better, and according to her Coach, Sam Bair Sr, her trajectory for improvement is off the charts.
Bair certainly knows a thing or two about what it takes to excel in the world of distance running. He eclipsed the 4 minute mile barrier in the late 60’s while starring at Kent State University. He has since gone on to coach at CCAC and the University of Pittsburgh, and now assists head coaches Dave Interthal and Mike Dusch at Shaler. One of the highlights for Bair includes coaching his own son, Sam Bair Jr, to two PIAA tiles in the mile while at Shaler. He also went on to coach Sam Jr. at Pitt where he went on to a outstanding career, which culminated with his own breaking of the 4 minute plateau in the mile. Only four father-son duos have ever achieved that incredible feat.
Few coaches are more respected than Bair, and he is effusive in his praise of Schwartz. “Brianna is a once in a lifetime athlete…I was lucky enough to be able to coach my son, and he was clearly special, but Brianna at this point in her career is at a different level…What sets her apart is more than god-given talent, its as much about her intrinsic motivation; her desire to be the best she can be, to be inherently motivated, it is really what makes her unique.”
As we drove through the runner’s Mecca otherwise known as North Park, going from checkpoint to checkpoint on Schwartz’s 10 mile run on a brisk January day, the theme of intrinsic motivation was at the forefront in my mind. It was hard not to be both amazed and impressed with the grace and ease she pounded out the miles. It truly was as if it was second nature, and like there was nowhere else in the world she would rather be.
Schwartz was not alone, at her side were Hampton’s Gina Alm and North Hill’s Mary Malone, both girls who compete against Schwartz, but on this day, you see friends getting better, doing what they love and enjoying every minute of it. Schwartz for one, seems to be a big fan of the times she spends at the park with fellow competitors “To me, this is probably the most fun part of my training, when I get to do it with my friends, it makes putting the work even more worth it.”
You get the sense that this group has a family feel to it, and its something that not only Schwartz embraces and enjoys but Bair thinks makes a big difference. “When you are at the level that Brianna is at, its obviously more difficult to find training partners…At Shaler, she often has to do workouts with the boys so when the opportunity arises to get some training in with some of the best runners in the area, it just makes sense, it makes everyone better and they really have fun.”
Bair has been utilizing North Park since he moved to the area in 1975. Its clear in talking with him that he knows where every bend and path goes and he certainly embraces what it can do to improve the runners who come here. He and close friend and local coaching legend John Wilkie have been together since those early days. Wilkie knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a great runner, and his list of WPIAL and PIAA champions is a long and distinguished one. His North Hills teams and athletes were perennially among the best for the past 30 years. Though Wilkie is now retired, it has not stopped him from continuing to volunteer his time and expertise to local runners. With Bair and Wilkie working in concert, some of the top local runners spend many hours pounding the pavement, and building relationships.
While many teenagers might spend much of their free time going to the local mall, movies, or any of the variety of things that your average 16 year old would do, Schwartz embraces her training and knows that if she wants to achieve continued success, those things often have to take the proverbial back seat. That’s not to say she does not make the time to do other things besides running. That very morning, she had spent time teaching CCD class at her local church, and she admits to being a big fan of the Hunger Games along with reading, “especially science fiction.” Schwartz is a success in the classroom also, and currently ranks in the top 5 of her high school class.
Its fair to think that when a young athlete is so immersed in training, there is a worry about burnout. This is something that Bair is acutely aware of, and is careful not to gloss over. Keeping things fun seems to be a priority for Bair, and after a long Cross Country season, he’s cautious not to rush Schwartz back too quickly to high intensity training or competition. “Brianna spent an additional six weeks training for the National meet in San Diego. When she did that, we knew that would mean taking a break from competition for a while…Now we will just take our time and decide on what to do for the Indoor season in the coming weeks. I’ve always looked at Indoor competition as secondary to the Outdoor season, and its important to take care of Brianna and make sure we’re not asking her to do too much too soon.”
With the outdoor season looming, the wisdom of Coach Bair is clear and evident. Both Bair and Schwartz feel that she is best suited to run the mile as her primary event again this upcoming track season, and its clear that they both have big goals in mind. The shy and humble Schwartz when pressed, seemed to agree with her coach that getting her time down in the 4:40 range would be a realistic goal. “I think getting down into that range is attainable” according to Bair. This would put her into a truly special category, and would allow her to flirt with the PIAA All-time mile record held by Homer Center legend Angel Piccorillo, one of the most decorated runners in PIAA history, who now runs at Villanova University.
Bair added that the greatest part in all of this is how much better Schwartz can be with more time and training. Bair noted that Brianna has only been running for about two years, and was playing basketball while trying to compete in running at the same time until 10th grade. Though Schwartz admitted it was a tough decision to give up hoops, it was something she did on her own, and with no regrets. “Coach never pressured me to choose one or the other, never…I knew that to be what I want to be in this sport, I needed to focus on it completely, and my coach supported me no matter what.” Its clear listening to Bair talk about Schwartz, that he truly thinks that another full year of training and focus can only mean great things Schwartz. “Obviously she has already made her mark, but the future is very, very bright not only as a runner, but in the grander scheme of things”
As for that grander scheme, her time working with kids has got her thinking a possible future in education could be a option. She also could see following in her coaches footsteps, and maybe coaching herself when her running career is complete. As for possible destinations? It seems clear she is trying to embrace her time in High School at the moment, and schools are not allowed to actively recruit and set up official visits until the summer before her Senior year. One thing is certain, Schwartz makes it clear academics will be a priority when considering schools, and considering her accomplishments competitively and in the classroom there will be a long list of offers awaiting her in the future.
I for one will be keeping an eye on Schwartz, runners of her caliber just don’t come around that often. I hope if you are a fan of Pittsburgh Sports, you’ll keep an eye on her too…
(Photo Credit: Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette)