Female Athletes of the Year: Maddie Holmberg and Brianna Schwartz

They competed at a number of the same track and field invitationals and championship meets, but Brianna Schwartz and Maddie Holmberg were never formally introduced to each other.

No problem. They kept meeting in the WPIAL record book.

The best in this event. The best in that event. Those were phrases that kept being used to describe Schwartz and Holmberg this spring. It was a case of junior achievement as this pair of high school juniors from opposite ends of the WPIAL map left indelible marks on the district track and field scene.

Shaler Area's Schwartz established herself as the best distance runner in WPIAL history while Holmberg, who attends Hempfield, was the ultimate in versatility, showing strength, agility, speed and grace in winning WPIAL and state titles in three events. Both made top national lists for their marks.

And for their efforts, Schwartz and Holmberg are the Post-Gazette Female Athletes of the Year for the 2013-14 school year. The award takes into consideration all athletes in the WPIAL and City League.

The Post-Gazette named its first athletes of the year 35 years ago. The first female winner was Beaver Falls' Candy Young, one of the greatest track and field athletes in Western Pennsylvania history. Young was a world record holder in high school in the hurdles. While Schwartz and Holmberg aren't among the best in the world, they are two for the ages in the WPIAL.

This spring, Schwartz ran the best times ever in the WPIAL in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. She also set records at invitationals and in the 1,600 at the WPIAL championships. She also won a PIAA title for the second consecutive year.

On top of that, last fall she won a WPIAL cross country championship for the second consecutive year and set a course record in the title race. She followed that with a sixth-place finish at the Foot Locker national championships in December, and in the indoor track season she won the mile with a state-record time. She also was invited to compete a few weeks ago in the Adidas "Dream Mile," a 10-girl race in New York City that included top runners around the country.

Holmberg was a hurdler, long jumper and sprinter. She was the first girl in WPIAL history to reach 20 feet in the long jump. Her jump of 20-1 at the PIAA championships tied for the seventh-best in the country this season.

Holmberg also had the best 300-meter hurdle time in WPIAL history and ran a leg on Hempfield's 400 relay team that ran the best time in WPIAL history. You won't see many district athletes thrive in three different events. Holmberg won WPIAL and PIAA titles in all three and led Hempfield girls to the PIAA Class AAA team title.

On top of that, the 5-foot-9 Holmberg made all-section in volleyball and was second-team all-WPIAL.

"It's hard to say what my biggest accomplishment might have been [this year] in track because I feel like I had pretty good accomplishments in each event," said Holmberg. "But I still think my long jump was probably the biggest."

Schwartz said: "I'd say the best thing for me this year was placing sixth at the Foot Locker nationals in cross country because that was really good competition. I didn't know what to expect. I was really proud of myself because it was so competitive. In track, getting the all-time indoor [state] record in the mile was pretty big."

This is the first time since 1989 the Post-Gazette picked co-Female Athletes of the Year. Although the two compete in different events, Schwartz and Holmberg have plenty in common: they are juniors, good students -- Schwartz has a 4.4 grade-point average while Holmberg has a 97-percent average (Hempfield goes by percentages) -- and not long ago thought their best sport involved a ball.

Schwartz's favorite sport used to be basketball and she thought she wanted to play in college. She didn't take running seriously until ninth grade when she started opening eyes in cross country. After one invitational, Shaler coach Sam Bair told Schwartz's father, Joe, that unless Brianna was a female LeBron James, she was in the wrong sport. Schwartz, a 5-7 guard, gave up basketball after her freshman year.

For Holmberg, it was volleyball. She even was into competitive cheerleading in her middle school and junior-high days. Holmberg's father, Rob, is a former Penn State and NFL linebacker who urged Maddie to favor track and field.

"Not that cheerleading isn't athletic, but I think he knew the potential I had in track and field, and he kind of wanted me to pursue that," said Maddie Holmberg. "I was more into volleyball in middle school. Track was just kind of the offseason sport. It wasn't until last year that I decided I wanted to do track in college."

Schwartz and Holmberg have futures in Division I college track and field. But there is one more year of high school. With everything they have accomplished, what can they do for an encore?

"I'll try to, no matter what, better myself and my times," said Holmberg. "Our team has been WPIAL [track] champs the last three years. I'd like to be WPIAL champs four years."

Schwartz said: "I guess I just want to run faster times. I just want to train harder and get stronger this summer and look to improve."

Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh

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