Brianna Schwartz’s best races are the 800 and 1,600-meter runs, but for tonight’s Baldwin Invitational, she will run only the 3,200.
It is the only distance race on which Schwartz hasn’t left her stamp of greatness.
Schwartz is a junior at Shaler High School, a girl who wanted to be a basketball player until she began to take running seriously two years ago. Now, some believe it’s a slam dunk that Schwartz is the best distance runner in WPIAL history.
Already this spring, Schwartz has run the best times in WPIAL history in the 800 and 1,600, times that are among the tops in the country. In the past, she has broken records set by Carole Zajac, a 1990 Baldwin graduate who went on to win NCAA titles at Villanova. Schwartz won a PIAA Class AAA 1,600 title last year as a sophomore and also WPIAL titles in the 800 and 1,600. She has won two consecutive WPIAL cross country titles, one with a course-record time.
John Wilkie is a retired cross country and track coach at North Hills who helps train Schwartz along with Shaler distance coach Sam Bair. Bair was once one of the top milers in the United States in the 1970s, breaking the four-minute mile. Wilkie has been involved on the WPIAL track and cross country circuit for four decades.
“I always said that Carole Zajac was the best I’ve seen from the WPIAL,” Wilkie said. “I think, without a doubt, that Brianna has taken over and she’s now the best from here.”
Schwartz can add to her “best ever” resume tonight. The Baldwin Invitational is one of the largest high school meets in the eastern part of the country and includes most of the top athletes in Western Pennsylvania. Schwartz is running the 3,200, really just to see what she can do. At the WPIAL championships, she will run only the 800 and 1,600.
“I think you could really see something special at Baldwin,” Wilkie said.
Schwartz doesn’t run the 3,200 often. Her best effort in the event came last year when she ran 10 minutes, 50.51 seconds, which is 14th best in WPIAL history.
“My coach [Bair] and I decided to try the [3,200] because I’ve never run it fresh,” Schwartz said. “I’ve always run the [1,600] before it, so I don’t really know what I can do. I’d like to maybe prove my range and that I’m not just a speed runner. I’m excited to see what I can do.”
The best 3,200 time in WPIAL girls history is 10:25.7 by Zajac in 1990.. Finals in the running events start at 6:30 p.m., and the 3,200 is expected to start around 9:30.
“I think she can run 10 and the teens,” Wilkie said.
The last time Schwartz lost a track race was her freshman year when she finished 12th in the 1,600 at the PIAA championships. It’s to the point now that she doesn’t really run against opponents. She runs against herself — and the clock.
“I think what really motivates me is the knowledge that God gave me a talent and I don’t want to waste it, so that’s why I get up every day and train,” Schwartz said. “I mean, it’s fun, but it’s also really hard and what really drives me is not to waste the talent I have and to just keep improving.”
But to fully appreciate Schwartz’s running talent now, you have to understand where she came from. Her family thought the best use of running was on the basketball court. Her father, Joe, played basketball at old Oliver High School on the North Side. Brianna’s older brother, J.T., was a talented basketball player at Shaler a few years ago and now plays at Grove City College. An older sister, Alexis, plays volleyball at Grove City, and there is a younger sister — fourth-grader Jocelyn.
Brianna played basketball at a young age and continued to play through her freshman year. She decided to give cross country a try as a seventh-grader because the team needed runners. It was simply an activity to pass the time when it wasn’t basketball season.
Then as a freshman, Schwartz had a life-changing race when she finished fifth at the Red White & Blue Invitational, a large cross country meet with many of the top runners in the WPIAL.
Bair approached Joe Schwartz after the meet and told him that unless Brianna was the LeBron James of girls basketball, she was in the wrong sport.
“He told me how good she was at running was like her scoring 30 a night in basketball,” Joe Schwartz said. “But it still didn’t hit me how good she really was.”
Brianna, who is 5 feet 7, was convinced by Bair and others that running was her future and she gave up basketball after her freshman year. Running likely will keep her from attending Shaler’s prom, which is always Memorial Day weekend. The PIAA championship track meet also is on Memorial Day weekend every year.
“Sometimes I miss basketball, but I think the thing I miss is the team atmosphere, of being with the girls and practicing with them,” Schwartz said. “But I definitely like the sport of running a lot better.”
Even the basketball-loving dad and his wife, Paulette, have warmed up to the sport of running, although they don’t always understand running strategies.
“Just by going to meets and talking to coaches I know a lot more, but when they start talking about splits and times at splits, I really don’t get it,” he said with a laugh.
But he does get the mindset of his daughter, who also is an excellent student with a grade point average better than 4.0.
“She’s a pretty competitive person,” he said. “She thinks nothing is too far from her reach. She gets one goal and I think she has another one. She’s never satisfied.”
Even if she might be the best ever.
For more on high school sports, go to “Varsity Blog” at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.