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    Independence sweeps district titles


    CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS—History was made on Friday as Independence’s girls’ track team claimed its first district championship and the boys’ team won its first team title since the 2001 season.

    The Blue Devils won seven individual titles at the Division III Cuyahoga Heights District and qualified 20 events for next week’s regional track meet.

    “It’s amazing,” said Independence coach Jess Crooks. “They’re just a great group of kids and just awesome athletes. When I look out on the field I see cross country runners, football players, I see soccer players and gymnasts and baseball players, and it’s amazing. All of those athletic abilities come together to make what you see.”

    Leading the way for the Blue Devils were senior Madison Stepanik and junior Emmett Stralka who both won a pair of district titles.

    Stepanik swept the shot put and discus. She set a new personal record with a toss of 111-feet flat to beat out the rugged competition and she threw the shot 35-feet, 11 1/4 –inches.

    Stralka won district titles in the 4×100 and 4×200-meter relays and placed second in both the 100 and 200-meter dashes.

    He teamed up with Lucas Martinez, who previously had qualified for regionals in the pole vault, Jack Taliaferro, and Josh Belitz to win the 4×100 in 44.75 seconds. The 4×200-meter relay team of Taliaferro, Kyle Zygmunt, Stralka, and Mike Andryszczyk made a little history of its own when it won the district title in 1:32.06. That time broke a 42-year old school record set in part by Stralka’s father in 1979.

    Stralka narrowly missed out on winning the 100-meter dash as he finished in 11.29, just 1/100 of a second behind Richmond Heights’ Trevon Mathews. He placed second in the 200 with a time of 23.18.

    Also winning district titles for the Blue Devils were freshman Casey Adams, junior Skylar Leichliter, and the girls’ 4×100-meter relay team.

    Adams cleared 16-feet, 7 ½-inches to win the long jump, and teamed up with junior Alex Adams, Leichliter, and junior Ava Moreal to win the 4×100 in 51.89 seconds.

    Leichliter won the 100-meter hurdles in 16.50 seconds and also qualified for the regional meet with a second-place finish in the pole vault (8-0) and a fourth in the long jump (16-0 ½-inches).

    Martinez finished second in the pole vault (10-0) to punch his ticket to regionals and he’ll be joined by Alex Adams (3rd, 100m dash, 13.26), senior P.J. Oschmann (3rd, 1600m, 4:39.39 and 3rd, 3200m, 10:33.31), senior John Eisenmann (4th, 110m hurdles, 17.94 and 2nd, 300m hurdles, 44.97), and Zygmunt (2nd, 400m, 50.89).

    Both the girls’ and the boys’ 4×800-meter relay teams finished among the top four and will join the boy’s 4×400-meter relay team at regionals.

    Seniors Makenna McGhee and Paige Westerburg teamed up with junior Gabrielle McGreevy and sophomore Kate Coljohn to place third in the 4×8 with a time of 11:48.07.

    Seniors Collin Patton and Oschmann ran with sophomores Kyle McGovern and Joe Shumay to finish fourth in the 4×8 with a time of 9:18.46.

    Taliaferro, Andryszczyk, Zygmunt, and senior Josh Belitz placed third in the 4×4 with a time of 3:35.70.

    “This group of young athletes is supporting each other, seeing each other on the track and cheering for them, saying good job, and giving them a high elbow,” Crooks said. “They’re just exactly what you want in a team. They’re carrying each other. Our theme from the conference meet carried over: if you fall, someone else will lift you up. It’s amazing.”

    The Blue Devils couldn’t have won the team titles without their depth.

    Others who scored by finishing among the top eight included Casey Adams (6th, high jump, 4-10), junior Morgan Crist (7th, discus, 115-8), sophomore Jessica Harb (5th, discus, 100-11), sophomore Chase Manelski (5th, pole vault, 8-6), McGreevy (7th, 1600, 6:17.48 ad 6th, 3200, 14:17.17), Moreal (5th, pole vault, 7-0), freshman Alana Nowak (5th, 1600, 6:08.24 and 5th, 3200, 13:37.71), Patton (6th, 1600, 4:51.17 and 7th, 800, 2:12.70), Taliaferro (5th, 200, 23.78), Westerburg (6th, 800, 2:44.22), and Zygmunt (6th, high jump, 5-6).

    Independence’s girls scored 101 ½ points to beat second-place Maplewood, who finished with 84 ½. The Blue Devils’ boys’ team edged rival Cuyahoga Heights, 104-86.

    Next week, the pressure mounts as the competition will challenge the Blue Devils more than ever before.

    Crooks and her athletes will approach that meet with the same winning formula they’ve used all season.

    “For a lot of these young athletes, this will be their first time experiencing it and for some of our older athletes, it’s their first time too,” Crooks said. “It’s all about having fun as well as competing and right now, we can kick back a little bit and say, ‘Wow, look what we did and now let’s go compete and have a good time and enjoy ourselves.'”

    Steve Hare
    The creator and publisher of, Hare has covered high school sports in Northeast Ohio since 1997. He began as a correspondent for the Lake County News Herald, where he contributed until 2011, primarily covering high school football and wrestling. In 1999, Hare began writing for, a member of the network of high school and college sports web sites. He focuses on covering Notre Dame football recruiting. was created in 2004 and was a member of the network until 2012. The site's original purpose was to cover Ohio high school football and recruiting news but since has grown to cover all sports and to provide sports information services to high school athletic programs and individual teams. Hare attended Willoughby South High School through the middle of his senior year, then graduated from Berkshire High School in Burton in 1986. He played football, wrestled and was an all-Geauga county baseball player (1986). He lives in Chardon with his wife Paulette and their children.
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