Barton, Snyder area’s top performers

With time to consider the most memorable moment of her Olympic experience, 2003 Everett Area High School graduate Natalie Dell didn’t pick having a medal placed around her neck.

Dell instead related the tale of going to the stadium in London with a teammate a few days later to take in the events in track and field, the sport in which she starred with the Lady Warriors. There, she saw Sarah Attah finish last in her trial by a wide margin in the 800-meter run.

Attah, though, was becoming one of the first female athletes ever to compete in the Olympics for Saudi Arabia. Dell recognized how that made Attah a winner in her own way.

“As she is running down the backstretch, the stadium starts to rumble a little bit, because I think we all realized this was a moment in history, and this is something that is way bigger than running,” Dell said. “She hits that final stretch, and it’s like the whole stadium is going to come down. As she cross the line, the sound was just deafening.”

Dell elicited a similar response, the bronze medalist rower delivering a stirring 16-minute speech that drew a standing ovation and served as the highlight of the eighth annual Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Year Banquet on Monday night at The Casino at Lakemont.

By the end of the event, Hollidaysburg Area High School’s Matt Barton had been crowned the Male Athlete of the Year, and Northern Bedford’s Maria Snyder had been presented the award for the top female athlete.

Central Cambria’s Alyssa Brandis (Angie Gioiosa Memorial Award), Bellwood-Antis’ Noah Davis (Ron Rickens Sportsmanship Award, male), Penn Cambria’s Taylor Freeman (Erin Dodson Memorial Award), Central Cambria’s Max Kirsch (Frank Kiraly Memorial Award), Cambria Heights’ Tristin Irwin (Erin Johnson Award) and Hollidaysburg’s Hannah Mercer (Ron Rickens Sportsmanship Award, female) took home the other major awards. More than 60 recipients of the 611 MRI Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Week awards also received plaques.

It was Dell, though, who put everything in amazing perspective.

“That was a gold-medal speech,” said Mirror general manager Erik Brown a few moments later as he took the stage to give Dell a gift: a plaque of her own with the group picture of her with the Mirror all-star track and field team from her senior year of high school.

Accompanied by friend and high school teammate Stephanie Strittmatter, Dell held the crowd in the palm of her hand, as she talked about watching Attah and how the idea for her speech coalesced during her plane trip from San Francisco, joked about meeting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, briefly touched on her own Olympic journey and waxed philosophical when discussing how both she and Strittmatter – a college distance runner turned biathlete – went on to have success in different sports than those in which they started.

“I didn’t find the sport that I was truly meant to do until I was in college, and I’ve got to be honest, I think there are a few other sports that God has made me to do, and I have yet to find them,” Dell said. “The door is not closed. There are a lot of sports out there. Keep your hear opened. Keep your mind opened.”

Dell laughed upon seeing a photo of Altoona pole vaulter upside down going over the bar, and she mentioned her reaction during her speech.

“I wasn’t even close to this good in high school,” Dell said. “I feel like I’m really amidst greatness.”

Dell wrapped up by leaving the athletes who were intending to continue competing in college with a few suggestions, including to care about what you are doing, be nice, be coachable, do not give up, and, above all, to thank their parents.

“Winning has different meetings. For some of us, it is coming in last in the Olympics and making history. For others, it’s getting a college scholarship. For others, it is passing down your knowledge as a coach,” Dell said. “For many, it’s pouring out your heart in your children’s dreams as you rack up those miles in your cars going to and from their practices.”

The role of parents was a recurring theme at the banquet. The Kiraly and Rickens awards were presented by their daughters, Melanie Madey and Linda Schellhammer, while the Dodson Award was handed out by her parents, Michelle and Bernie Dodson.

“Newspapers make everything better,” Mirror publisher Ed Kruger said at the start of the festivities, “but parents make everything better.”

In fact, almost every speaker and recipient followed Dell’s advice and made mention of their mother and father.

“Parents’ sacrifice led to the children’s success,” added sponsor Adam Trybus.

In Barton’s case, a good gene pool didn’t hurt, either – his father, John, played football at West Virginia and then coached him in the same sport. The younger Barton starred on the gridiron, make the all-area first team twice, but his athletic achievements also included winning his weight class in the District 6 Class AAA tournament and taking first in the discus and shot put at the 6-AAA track and field championships.

“I thank my parents for supporting me my whole athletic career,” Barton said.

A James Madison recruit, Snyder was a six-time District 5 individual champion in track, a four-time PIAA medalist in track and cross country and managed to win a pair of District 5 singles tennis titles, even though her school doesn’t have a tennis team.

The guidance of elders also played a big role for Irwin, who won the Johnson Award for perseverance in the face of adversity. In Irwin’s case, though, it was his grandparents, Chris Irwin and Jerry Brant, who took over after his parents divorced and his father was killed in a car accident when he was almost 3.

Starting off swimming in the family bathtub, his guardians encouraged Irwin in his athletic pursuits, who went to set swimming records at Heights, starring in soccer and lettering in football and track, as well.

Davis and Mercer both were recognized for their friendliness despite being fierce competitors – Davis most notably in basketball and Mercer in basketball and softball – while volunteering free time to charitable organizations.

“Sportsmanship has always been a big thing with my parents,” Davis said. “They’ve always told me to try to block someone’s shot or try to score on them, but, when the play’s over, help them up, pat them on the back and, after the game, try to become their friend.”

Kirsch received the Kiraly Award for the area’s top golfer after winning his second District 6 championship and finishing eighth at the state tournament. Freeman picked up the Dodson Award for the top volleyball player by virtue of setting a school record for kills with 505 in leading the Lady Panthers to their second district championship in three years.

Brandis was honored as the top distance runner in the area. She’s medaled four times in the PIAA cross country meet – taking silver as a senior – in addition to winning two state medals in track.

“I want to thank my family, coach, friends, everyone who supported me,” Brandis said.