Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam's Kaitlyn Bartlett gets set during a recent track and field meet in Albany.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam's Anastasia Lazarou competes during a recent track and field meet in Albany.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam's Frankie Perez is shown on the track during a recent practice in the town of Amsterdam.
Michael Kelly/Recorder staff Amsterdam's Brianna Rivas works on the shot put during a recent practice in the town of Amsterdam.
By MICHAEL KELLY
TOWN OF AMSTERDAM -- With the conclusion of Tuesday's and Wednesday's Big 10 Championships, the portion of the season in which the Amsterdam High School outdoor track and field teams are whole is coming to an end.
Heading into Saturday's William F. Eddy Jr. Track and Field Meet, sectionals and state qualifiers, the Rams' and Lady Rams' rosters will become smaller, as generally only the teams' top athletes continue into this portion of the campaign.
With that change comes a loss for AHS. While athletes like juniors Izaiah Brown and Maddie Janetsky score the bulk of the points for the Rams and Lady Rams, a majority of the clubs' athletes do not get to participate in scoring heats, but work at every practice to better themselves and their teammates. They are the kids that do not gain glory from their exploits on the track or in the field, as their sense of competition comes not from opposing teams but from within themselves. In competition, their goal is not a place, but a personal record -- the elusive "PR."
Lady Rams head coach Stu Palczak calls such athletes "program kids," and it is a fitting moniker. The main purpose they serve to the Rams and Lady Rams is to make sure the program's health is in tip-top shape.
They are the heartbeat of the operation.
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Starting with the end of the fall season, eighth-grader Olivia Lazarou has become the face of the Lady Rams' running program. The middle-schooler developed into the program's top performer in cross country, and has been a first-place fixture in multiple events for the AHS girls in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. When she races, the eighth-grader quickly becomes one of the main points of attention.
Meanwhile, big sister Anastasia Lazarou flies under the radar. The junior competes in dashes and sprint relays, but rarely competes in scoring heats. She does it with a smile, and it grows bigger when she cheers on her little sister during her races.
"I like to encourage her," says Anastasia Lazarou. "Yeah, she's better than me at track, but she's always there for me, too, so I'm here for her."
In more ways than one. A majorette in the fall, Anastasia Lazarou joined the Lady Rams' track and field team this winter for the first time because her little sister was going to compete after participating in cross country.
"She really liked it and I didn't have anything to do in the winter because I didn't want to play basketball anymore," says Anastasia Lazarou. "So, I started with indoor track -- and I really liked it."
Anastasia Lazarou has spent the indoor and outdoor seasons on the fringe of becoming a scorer for the Lady Rams. Palczak says he has had no hesitation in putting her into scoring relays at invitationals, but that the junior's biggest impact comes in helping out a squad that has more middle-school age athletes (seven) than seniors (six).
"Ana is a great big sister -- and not only for Olivia, but for the other little girls on the team," says Palczak. "She looks out for all of them and they all look up to her."
The two Lazarous are different personality types -- Anastasia Lazarou is the quiet one and describes her sister as a "nut" -- but have enjoyed getting to hang out while competing for the Lady Rams despite their age gap.
"Next year is going to be her last year (in high school) and she's my only sister, so it's been good to have something we can do together," Olivia Lazarou says.
The best thing about being a member of the Lady Rams, Anastasia Lazarou says, is how close all the squad's members become during the season.
"I've made a lot of close friends with track and I like how we're all one big family," Anastasia Lazarou says.
She's that family's big sister.
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This season, the Lady Rams' crew of throwers is a mixture of youngsters and older newcomers. To have any success, the group needed a leader.
So, up stepped freshman Brianna Rivas.
"She takes charge in a low-key way," says Palczak. "She has a nice way about her ... (but) she's direct."
"She talks to everyone," adds senior distance standout Delilah Quinones. "She's been a really good leader and that's what I like about her."
Rivas has developed into a leader despite still being relatively new to the sport. After competing for the Lady Rams' modified team a year ago, Rivas took up the shot put this winter for the first time.
"I wouldn't say it came naturally to me because I have to put a lot of work in to get what I want," says Rivas. "I push myself to do the best I can."
To that end, Rivas augments her practice sessions with watching clips online of throwers to gain extra tips. It has worked, as Rivas has upped her PR in the shot put to 21 feet, 4 inches -- more than four feet better than when she started.
While Rivas' improvement has been steady, what impresses her coaches and teammates is her leadership. Palczak says he noticed Rivas stepping up at the beginning of the spring season when each time he needed to get the throwers together, it was Rivas rounding them up.
"It just naturally flowed that whenever I needed to tell the throwers something, I'd ask Brianna to gather the crew," he says.
Rivas also helps out the throwers with their mechanics. But the impressive thing, Quinones says, is that the freshman seems to have a good handle on the sport as a whole.
"If one teammate doesn't know their workout, she can help them out, too," Quinones says.
Speaking about her time with the team's throwers, Rivas says her willingness to be vocal comes from a desire to see each team member reach his or her potential.
"We have to support each other; we have to push each other," she says. "We throw our best by helping each other."
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Rams head coach Kevin Wilary generally knows what to expect when the school day's final bell rings.
Before Wilary makes it to the hallway where his team meets before practicing, the coach knows that junior team member E. Cole Amissah is going to pay a visit to let the coach know that he will be late for practice so that he can receive academic assistance.
"He's a very motivated student," says Wilary. "He wants to be the best, get a 100 on every test. He puts a ton of effort into his academics."
Amissah, who participate in Amsterdam's Smart Scholars Early College High School Program, says his coach takes that view a little too far. The junior, whose favorite subject is chemistry, says he is not going for perfection with every test.
"I just try to beat my classmates," Amissah says.
On the track, Amissah only cares about beating himself. Each competition, the sprinter's goal is to knock 0.2 seconds off his time. That is a tactic Amissah has used to pare down his 200-meter dash time from in the 32-seconds range, as a freshman, to the 28-seconds range.
"He's made himself into a much better athlete," Wilary says.
Wilary says the way Amissah has been able to consistently improve is because he takes every workout seriously. Even when Amissah misses the start of a practice, the junior makes sure to stay late to finish the workout the rest of his teammates completed -- even if it takes him so long that he's the last Ram on the track.
"He's pretty much always one of the last kids to leave," Wilary says.
Junior teammate David Graveley, who is one of Section II's top hurdlers and sprinters, says Amissah makes everyone work harder.
"When you see him trying as hard as he does every day, it's inspiring," says Graveley. "He knows he's not going to be up to some people's level, but he's fine with that and wants to improve for himself."
In return for his dedication, Amissah's turn in the 200-meter dash has become one of the most-anticipated races on the track for his teammates. While the junior's times do not qualify him as a scorer, the Rams line up to cheer Amissah's finishing kick.
"Everyone just loves when he runs," Graveley says.
Amissah smiles when the cheers that accompany his finishes are brought up.
"I hear them, but I'm just trying to focus on my race to do my best," Amissah says.
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When junior Kaitlyn Bartlett joined the Lady Rams last spring, the goal was a simple one.
"I just wanted to get in shape," she says.
But Bartlett achieved that goal pretty quickly -- and she's still working with the Lady Rams, going to every practice and meet for both the indoor and outdoor seasons.
"I like running the sprints and I like the track team," she says. "It's a family. ... I'm in good shape now -- all the workouts get you in good shape -- and my times have been getting better."
Bartlett mostly competes in the 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash, and consistently keeps track of her PRs in both.
Teammate McKenna Palczak, the club's top hurdler, says Bartlett is always on top of what is going on with the sport.
"She really is so dedicated to it," says Palczak. "She puts in her work and she's here every day."
But Bartlett's fascination with the sport goes beyond the daily workouts. Palczak says that when the Rams' Brown went to a select meet this winter in New York City, she received text messages from Bartlett, who had found an online stream of the meet to watch her teammate.
"She was all over it," Palczak says.
Stu Palczak says it is commitment like that, both to the team and the sport, that makes Bartlett such a valuable Lady Ram.
"She's the type of kid that makes this sport what it is," he says. "You can be an important part of this team if you come every day, work hard and conduct yourself like a mature, young person -- and she does all those things.
"She's the type of kid you want around your program," continues Palczak. "She doesn't get a ton of accolades for winning races, but she plugs away, improves and earns a great deal of respect from the coaches and her teammates because of that."
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When Frankie Perez finishes one of his races, his teammates are either aware or quickly about to become aware.
Usually, a selection of Rams and Lady Rams are near the finish line to give Perez a high-five ... and the sophomore generally seeks out the rest of the squad's athletes for a celebratory greeting soon after making his way through his prepared teammates.
"He," says Wilary, "has a lot of fun."
That's why Perez joined the team in the first place. A first-year Ram, Perez is in AHS teacher Jodi Fox's 12-student classroom during the school day as part of a program that helps kids better their communication skills. For most of the day, Perez works in the smaller class setting, but he participates with the rest of the school's student body for subjects such as music and physical education.
Sometimes, Fox says, multiple sections of the communication classes head outside to the track during the school day for a break. Perez liked those trips, she says, and he'd bring up how he likes to use exercise equipment when he is with his family. That got the idea going in Fox's head that Perez could join the school's track and field team.
"We knew he was interested," she says.
"She wanted to get him involved," says Wilary. "And, it's been easy."
That's because of Perez's outgoing nature. In the past, Perez has been a member of the school's chorus and robotics club, so joining up with a group has never been a problem for the 16-year-old boy.
"He's willing to try a variety of different activities," Fox says.
With the Rams, Perez has competed mostly in the 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash, and he has dabbled in the high jump.
Perez says the 100-meter dash is his preferred race because it is the faster of his two dashes. His favorite thing about being on the team is practicing, and the workouts leave him tired enough that he has been able to take a break from doing his personal exercises at the gym.
"This is enough for me," Perez says.
Sometimes, Wilary says, the team's coaches adjust workouts for Perez, but his teammates have made it so that rarely needs to happen.
"They're always willing to help him if he doesn't understand something and they always cheer for him," says Wilary. "The kids on the team respect him because he's always trying hard at everything he does."
Brown, the team's junior star and reigning state champion in the 400-meter dash, says the best thing Perez brings to the team is his "big smile" and attitude.
"He brings joy to the team," says Brown. "Seeing him out there, having fun ... if I'm feeling blue, I can look at him, and he's always happy.
"He's one of those kids that we enjoy having around," adds Brown. "We always get a good vibe from him."
Perez says he has enjoyed getting to compete with the Rams. While his season is winding down, he says he wants to participate again next year.
That's more than OK with his coach.
"Having him be on the team has been great for him and the team," Wilary says.
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Recorder file photo Amsterdam's E. Cole Amissah runs during an early-season 100-meter dash in the town of Amsterdam.