Area athletes share what they learned as they chased a high school state title



In May, thousands upon thousands of high school student athletes will play in the postseason, embarking on a journey they hope will ultimately lead to a state championship.

 Butler University junior Billy Weldon, a two-time doubles state champion for the Upper Arlington High School boys tennis team, says that road is often filled with pot holes, broken glass and barbed wire.

 “The road to the state championship is not perfect. Not everything goes your way,” says Weldon, who won Division I state doubles titles in 2010 and 2011 with Stu Little. “It’s really about persevering.

 “Facing that adversity and doing your best definitely is as applicable to the real world as it is in sports.”

 Whether it ended in success or failure, the experience of chasing down a state championship left its mark on former high school athletes Abby Johnston (diving), Leah Levey (girls soccer), Kevin Weakley (boys basketball) and Weldon. The four shared the lessons they learned in pursuing a championship.

Johnston’s story: Second-place finish was a springboard for Olympic success

 Sometimes athletes learn more from losing than they do from winning a state championship. Johnston, a former Upper Arlington diver, placed second only once in her three-year high school career.

 However, the Olympic silver medalist says placing second in 2006 was a turning point in her diving career.

 Picking up the sport as an eighth grader, Johnston won the 2005 Division I state title as a freshman, scoring 449.45 points to finish ahead of teammates Corey Gerlach (second, 439.7) and Hannah Krimm (third, 398.35).

 Johnston was a heavy favorite to win the title again the following year but placed second by .95 of a point, scoring a 427.35 to finish behind Cincinnati Ursuline Academy’s Jennifer Funch (428.3).

 “I thought winning a state title was something I thought I had in the bag,” says Johnston, who recaptured the title in 2007and then moved to North Carolina her senior year. “Not getting what you expect out of a situation helps you grow. I learned that it wasn’t a given. I had to come back and earn it.”

 Johnston won the 2011 NCAA championship on the 3-meter board while at Duke. She and Kelci Bryant captured the silver medal in the 3-meter synchronized diving at the 2012 London games, scoring 321.9 to finish behind China’s Zi He and Minxia Wu (346.2).

 Currently Johnston is training with the Ohio State diving club as she prepares for the FINA Diving World Cup July 15-20 in Shanghai, China.

Johnston won’t rule out competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but wants to wait and see how the competition will affect her plans to attend medical school.

 While she appears to be fearless on a diving board, Johnston still has to overcome a fear of taking tests.

 “When I tell a professor I’m nervous about their tests, they say ‘you’re telling me you can stand in front of people in a bathing suit but you get nervous about a piece of paper with a bunch of questions on it.’ I need to work on that and channel my diving side when I take those tests.”

Weakley’s story: State run produces a desire to coach and succeed at alma mater


 As the Worthington Christian boys basketball coach, Weakley tries to never criticize a player for taking a shot he thinks he can make.

That mantra was drilled into him when he was a junior at Worthington Christian. Weakley helped guide the Warriors to the 1994 Division IV state championship game but missed a running jumper that could have tied the game in the waning seconds of a 56-54 loss to McGuffey Upper Scioto Valley in the final.

 As a player, Weakley quickly put the miss behind him. As a coach, he revisits that shot each time the Warriors are eliminated from the tournament.

 “(As players) we were disappointed that day but the next day we were back in the gym, getting after it next year,” he says with a laugh. “As a coach, it takes much longer to get over losses. You just hang on and on to it.”

 Weakley comes from a long line of coaches. His father Scott was a former coach at Worthington Christian and Capital University and his brother Bryan is the head coach of the Texas A&M International men’s basketball team. As a boy, Weakley remembers crossing over the Lane Avenue bridge to St. John Arena and telling his dad that someday he was going to take Worthington Christian to the state final.

 After losing to East Knox in the middle of the 1993-94 season, Worthington Christian seemed to be an unlikely candidate for a long tournament run. The Warriors run seemed to follow like something out of the movie “Hoosiers.”

 “I can remember a lot of people wondering if (then-coach Ray Slagle) was going to finish out the year as our coach,” says Weakley, whose team didn’t lose a game the remainder of that season until the championship game. “We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.

 “That was the first time any (Worthington Christian) team in any sport had gone to the state level. “Everyone looked at us as trailblazers but in reality there were many people and many players who came before us that helped make that happen.”

 And many great teams came afterward. Worthington Christian has reached the state tournament three other times. The Warriors lost in the 2000 semifinals, placed second in 2008 and, with Weakley’s younger brother Jason leading the way, won the 1999 state title.

 “Playing at the highest level in high school sports creates in you a desire to want to chase your goals,” Weakley says. “That’s helped me in my profession and it prepared me for what I’m doing now.”

LEVEY’S STORY: Not every fairy tale ends the way you want it to


 Not unlike Weakley, Levey has never forgotten the missed opportunities she had in the 2009 Division II girls soccer state championship game at Crew Stadium.

 The Bexley girls soccer team was 20-0-3 overall and seemed to be on the cusp of a Cinderella season. The Lions were 51.9 seconds away from going into overtime with a chance to win a state title when Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown snatched and shattered Bexley’s glass slipper. The Blazers’

Lysette Roman headed in a corner to give the Blazers a championship.

 “Since I was the senior captain, I just personally felt I could’ve done more,” says Levey, a two-time all-University Athletic Association selection for Case Western Reserve University after high school. “I don’t know if technically (that feeling) ever went away.

 “I can still remember certain plays where I had a shot and didn’t make it. They’re still stuck in my mind.”

 Levey and the Lions ended up getting through their state championship in an unusual way. A little over a month later, the Blazers relinquished the title because a key player was ineligible to play. The player, whose name was never released, transferred from Hathaway Brown during the second semester of 2008 but returned before the start of the 2009 school year.

 Levey navigated a gauntlet of emotions when she heard about the reversal of the title.

 “At first there was confusion. Then there was excitement when they were actually saying we’re state champions,” Levey says. “Then, I remember feeling so angry we didn’t get a fair chance (to win it on the field). A forfeit’s not a way to win a soccer game; you want to win by taking them on the field.”

 Regardless of how the championship was won, Levey says she gained a lot of leadership and life skills during the run.

 “I definitely gained confidence that season, not just in my playing abilities, but in how to lead and how to support other teammates,” says Levey, who finished her soccer career with Case Western Reserve last fall, scoring 17 goals and nine assists in her four years.

 “Obviously you want the fairy tale ending of having a real undefeated season. We were ranked first in the state and on top of the world. Losing reminds you that there’s always a reason and room to improve.”

Weldon’s story: Winning state title helped

Weldon learn how to handle expectations, pressure Weldon’s state tournament experience helped him deal with a high pressure system of aspirations and expectations. Weldon teamed up with Little and won the 2010 doubles title with a 6-4, 6-1 win over New Albany’s Riyad Bennoui and John Hendrix.

 When he and Little decided to play doubles again in Weldon’s senior year, the two were saddled with some heavy expectations.

 “It was definitely a mixed bag,” Weldon says. “You know you are capable of winning and you have these huge expectations. At the same time, there are a lot of people gunning for you. Every match you play there’s a target on your back.”

 At the 2011 district tournament, someone hit that target. Dublin Jerome’s Kevin Seitz and Sean Stein surprised Weldon and Little 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in a semifinal. Little and Weldon advanced to the state tournament with a third seed from their district after winning a consolation final.

 Since 1999, only one doubles team (Medina’s Patrick Thompson and MikeNorelka, the sixth seed from the Rocky River district) had won a state title when seeded outside of the top two.

 Weldon and Little won three set matches in the second and semifinal rounds and then knocked off Mason’s Luke Tsai and Miguel Cepeda 6-3, 6-1 in the final to win their second doubles title.

 Weldon says he felt more pressure the second time around.

 “There was definitely a sigh of relief component to it because of the expectations we put on ourselves,” says Weldon who led Butler with 21 wins in singles and was a second team All–Atlantic 10 selection last year. “You knew you’re getting everyone’s best shot the second time around.”

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