There comes a point when life tries to pressure people into taking a certain path. Most follow willingly without a hint of resistance, eager to live up to expectations without reaching true happiness.
Mary Becker isn’t one of them. She ignored others expectations at an early age and lives her own way.
Throughout the 48-year-old’s life, she was shot down. First, the incredibly competitive natural athlete was told she couldn’t compete against the boys, and then she whipped them all over basketball and tennis courts, baseball fields and bowling alleys.
As a senior three-sport star at Midland High in Michigan, they told her she was too small to play Division I college basketball. Four years later, she was team MVP as a tenacious point guard for the University of Dayton, where she also played two years of varsity softball.
Even when her athletic career came to an end, there were doubters. They scolded her for giving up a potentially lucrative engineering career in favor of becoming a meagerly paid teacher and coach. Years later, a select few at Highland told her she could start a girls golf team, but it wouldn’t be a paid position.
No one is doubting her now.
Seven years after Becker ignited the program, the Hornets finished as Division I state-runner up with Becker’s always-encouraging, reach-for-the-stars philosophy firmly entrenched in the bags of her talented players.
That said, it’s not hard to figure out why the longtime Montville Township resident is the 2012 Gazette Fall Coach of the Year.
“We’ve always talked about not letting anyone put limitations on you,” she said. “I was told I was too small to play Division I basketball and I refused to believe it. If you believe it in your heart, you have to go for it. You’d be surprised where hard work and dedication will take you.”
If Jessica Porvasnik, Jessica McRae, Rachel Horvath, Chloe McKinzie, Karly Alexander and Hallie Schuld had any doubts about Becker’s beliefs, all they had to do was look at her resume.
Growing up with her slightly older brother, Tom, Becker knew early on she loved to compete. If Tom played Little League, she wanted to. If her father, Ron, was showing Tom how to make a layup, she would wait for them to go inside and shoot 1,000 of them.
If she thought she could hit a golf ball, she’d take a club out of her father’s bag and proceed to rip a drive directly through the front window of her house (on accident, of course).
Maybe most important was that she didn’t take kindly to second place and would do everything within her control to make sure that wouldn’t happen.
“I wasn’t a very good loser, let’s just put it that way,” she quipped. “I learned to be more gracious. I had some really good coaches along the way (Midland’s Chuck Przcinski, Gary Verlinde and Tom Hersey) who pulled me to the side and told me how it was when I wasn’t acting the way I should.”
Following her successful playing career at Dayton, the competitive edge steered Becker toward coaching, which was something she enjoyed while working summer camps. It was an itch she couldn’t shake, and she realized sports were an avenue where women could express themselves on the same level as men.
And so began a 20-year career that stretched from the University of Xavier to Cincinnati McCauley High and other high schools in Illinois before her husband, Matt, was transferred by Westfield Insurance to its main office in southern Medina County.
Brunswick just happened to have math and girls basketball openings, so Becker took the offer in 1992 and ran with it. Becker helped the Blue Devils win the ’98 Pioneer Conference title and, after her contract was not renewed in 2001, coached the Hornets through the 2005-06 season. Her 133 career wins rank in the top 10 in county history.
Finally, she burned out. The fire in her eyes wasn’t there anymore, so Becker turned them to what she felt was Highland’s black one. The financially stable district with a ton of great golf courses in the area didn’t have a girls team. Becker watched one of her former math students, Holly Botzum, compete on the boys junior varsity without an opportunity to compete against girls outside of the postseason.
Unaware Lauren McKinzie, Stephanie Horvath, Porvasnik and McRae even existed, Becker couldn’t stand it any longer. There needed to be a girls golf team, and she was going to make it happen.
“I had no intentions of building a dynasty,” she said. “I just wanted girls to have the opportunity. It’s a great game. You can play it forever, and it’s a good way for women in business to network in a man’s world.”
With the support of families like the McKinzies, Horvaths, Porvasniks, Sammons, Sniffs, Bianchinis and Ostmanns, plus local swing coach Pam Stefanik, whom Becker still goes out of her way to praise, Becker went to the middle school and began a club. Kids quickly began to take notice, and when Porvasnik, McRae, Lauren McKinzie and Stephanie Horvath teamed up for the first time in 2009, things got great in a hurry.
Three years later, Highland had two former players competing for D-I colleges (Lauren McKinzie at Ohio and Stephanie Horvath at Cincinnati) and was on the verge of a state championship. The Hornets had the best player in Ohio (Porvasnik), another of all-state caliber (McRae) and three others (Chloe McKinzie, Rachel Horvath and Alexander) who could more than hold their own.
Knowing her team had all the talent in the world but needed a mental edge, Becker’s coaching style unknowingly came full circle.
In basketball, she was incredibly fiery. To this day, she’s still not a fan of referees — one called her “Screaming Mary” because she complained so much — and former assistant Steve Borgis oftentimes had to physically refrain her from storming the court during her final years on the bench.
Golf, however, is completely hands off. Coaches are only permitted to talk to players between holes. It’s mostly about preparation, with a heavy dose of instilled confidence on the side.
In response, Becker gave her players — the same ones who still have a hard time believing those wild basketball stories — a personally addressed note, reminding them how far they’ve come and how proud she was of them.
Coupled with the inspirational notes was a boom box that played the Five For Fighting song, “Chances.” The lyrics fit perfectly with Becker’s overall message: You’ve given yourself a chance to win a state title, and today is your opportunity.
Chances are when said and done
Who’ll be the lucky ones who make it all the way?
Though you say I could be your answer
Nothing lasts forever no matter how it feels today
Chances are we’ll find a new equation
Chances roll away from me
Chances are all they hope to be
“She was bringing this boom box and we said, ‘Why are you playing the boom box?’”
Porvasnik said. “She played this song that meant a lot to us. It showed us don’t give up at state, pretty much. For our seniors — Jessica (McRae) and I — this was our chance.
“It was pretty motivating. It was really cool. I’ve never had a coach that (thought) like that before. It was really interesting, and I think it really helped a lot. It definitely relaxed us. You can only give it your best. If they happen to beat you by one, at least you gave it your all.”
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. Highland fought valiantly for 36 holes, but finished second on each day behind different teams. Ultimately, the Hornets fell one stroke shy of edging Dublin Jerome for gold.
When the tears of disappointment dried, Becker’s message still rang true when each player talked to the media — they gave it their all and the chips fell in front of someone else’s feet.
Becker has never been more satisfied in a coaching career that spans more than 25 years.
“I’m just extremely proud of them,” she said. “If you’re a teacher and you can help kids make their dreams come true, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about you. It’s about those kids and what you do for them.
“Having kids that listen to you and are eager to try what you ask — and they’re devoted and dedicated — is a coaching dream. They’re living their dreams, and that’s a dream come true for me, too.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.