Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Five-Sport Wonder

A Five-Sport Wonder

By B.J. Koubaroulis

Special to The Washington Post

Tuesday Sept. 29, 2009, D1

A framed photograph sits on the kitchen counter of Erin Hardtke's Herndon home. It's a 10x14 image of Erin, a senior at Oakton High, playing volleyball. In the picture, her left arm is perfectly placed above the net, poised to deliver a vicious kill shot as two defenders, caught in midair, brace for impact.

"I love looking at that picture," says Erin's mother, Gretchen.

Gretchen often comes home to find the picture turned face down. Erin, 17, "hates" the photo, says her mom. "She has a really tough time seeing herself in print or in pictures."

Erin's right arm is also plainly visible in the image. The limb ends a few inches below her elbow because of a birth defect.

Despite her disability, Erin has developed into a five-sport anomaly, excelling in swimming, diving, basketball, volleyball and soccer. She's used each sport as her proving ground, trading self-doubt and questions of self-image for confidence-boosting moments of athletic accomplishment. Still, despite her varsity letters, Hardtke admits her condition has had a powerful impact on her high school experience. She says she has struggled to keep a positive self-image, saying she's found it difficult at times to "love myself."

"It's something I had no control over," said Erin, who lost her right arm to a condition called amniotic band syndrome, in which fetal parts, usually limbs or digits, become entrapped in fibrous amniotic bands while in utero.

Described by her parents as a "chatter box" when she was younger, Erin has become more withdrawn during her high school experience, choosing to shield her emotions as she learns to balance being disabled with being a teenager.

"I still have those moments when it's just a lot to take in, when it's really frustrating, when I want to give up, when it's really annoying, when I'm at my end," she said.

"We've always said, 'Thank God that she's naturally athletic, naturally beautiful and smart because those are positives,' " Gretchen said as she peered across the kitchen table at her husband, Bill. "Athletics evens the playing field for her. It makes her feel like an equal."

Left-Handed 'Thunderbolt'

In her fourth year playing organized volleyball, Hardtke has become one of the Virginia AAA Northern Region's most feared outside hitters.

"That left hand is a thunderbolt," Oakton volleyball coach Steve Drumm said.

Left-handed hitters are particularly desirable in volleyball, according to George Mason University women's volleyball coach Pat Kendric, who became so enamored with Erin's hard hitting during a GMU volleyball camp this summer that she hooked her up with an invite-only tryout with the Women's U.S. Paralympic volleyball team.

Reluctantly, Hardtke will travel to Oklahoma for a Nov. 20 tryout.

"When we went to the Web site, she didn't like it at all because the whole focus is on being different," said Gretchen. "But, who knows, this could be the one opportunity where, for her, being different might be an advantage."

Hardtke also is an accomplished swimmer and diver at Pinecrest Swim and Tennis Club, where she is a specialist in the breaststroke and butterfly.

"I do the butterfly just like everybody else does it," Erin said.

Last spring, she was a starting defender for Oakton's state semifinal soccer team, and she is a year-round soccer player with the travel team Chantilly Electrics.

She also played basketball for Oakton as a freshman and owns a defensive hip-check that earned her both a reputation and playing time.

"She's no shrinking violet. She doesn't apologize for her situation or ask for any particular quarter for it," said Oakton basketball coach Fred Priester, who described Hardtke's jump shot and the inexplicable spin she puts on the ball. "She hasn't let what would be a pretty daunting situation for most kids hold her back."

A one-handed jump shot is just one example of what Hardtke calls "modifications," as she has to "think a lot more than other players do," she said.

"I guess I just try and find an easier way of what [other players] are doing and apply it to me," said the 5-foot-10 Hardtke, who has a 21-inch vertical leap -- one of the highest on the volleyball team. "Volleyball is the hardest thing for me because it's really a lot of technique, it's precision passing, it has to be a precision set."

During a 3-0 season-opening victory over South Lakes this month, Erin scored on nine straight serves; more than half were aces.

"There's nothing wrong with an opposing team trying to pick on her defensively, because she's never been a liability," said Drumm. "Sometimes parents from the other team come up to me and say, 'It's so great what you're doing for her' and then I'll feel a little uncomfortable. I'm not doing Erin any favors -- if she wasn't talented enough, she wouldn't be on this team."

The hard work, the extra hours, and the obstructions that foul Hardtke's day-to-day activities have equally frustrated her and shaped her resilience.

"I'm usually a really private person," Erin said. "My mom and dad are my support system, but I don't even feel comfortable telling them when I have problems because I have to admit to them that I'm not like everyone else and I'm different, and it's really hard for me, even right now. I don't like drawing attention to myself at all."

Adaptable and Stubborn

By the time she was 5, Erin was learning to adapt to her disability. Twice a month, her parents would make the three-hour drive to Shriner's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, where she would endure grueling repetitions of simple tasks such as tying her shoes and cutting with a fork and knife, while learning how to use her prosthetic arm.

"The first time I saw her tie her shoes, it boggled my mind," said Bill. "And I mean, a perfect bow, too."

By the time she was a sixth-grader, Erin had developed a stubbornness that her parents called unquestionable. Determined to fit in with her classmates, Erin would take off her prosthetic arm and hide it in her backpack at school. The prosthetic was "just one more thing that made me feel different," she said.

Eventually, she stopped wearing it completely.

"I think she just thought, this is it, this is the way it's going to be and I'm going to have deal with it," said Bill. "I doubt right now that she'll ever get to a point where she'll want to wear [the prosthetic] again."

When Erin was in fifth grade, a referee made her remove her prosthetic before walking onto the field for a youth soccer game. Her teammates, family, opposing team and spectators watched. "It was very public," Bill said.

"After that, she didn't wear it playing soccer anymore," Gretchen said.

Since entering high school, Erin's self-awareness has grown. The stares and sideways glances often magnify her discomfort. In addition to her family -- she's one of four children -- she finds support from a small circle of friends, many of whom are teammates from sports.

"I don't really play sports to prove anything or prove anyone wrong, I just always played sports," Erin said. "My parents had us all in sports ever since we were kids."

Sitting on a stool and leaning her left elbow on a black granite countertop, Erin waves the bangs off her forehead. She takes a moment to tuck her right arm close to her body; it's an optical illusion that makes it appear as if her arm is positioned behind her back.

"She's done that ever since she was a little girl," Bill said. "It's a bit of a defense mechanism she uses sometimes so that it gives her a chance with people before they notice [her arm]. I'm not sure she's even conscious that she does it."

The desire to be normal, to be like the rest of the kids in her class -- it never goes away.

"I would love to see, like just have a day where I look like everyone else and just see what would happen," Erin said. "I just feel like I'd love my life so much more. It would just be easier."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Superstar Recruits Robinson and Simmons Face Off in Key Patriot Game Tonight

The Washington Post has launched a new set of sports blogs...

Superstar Recruits Robinson and Simmons Face Off in Key Patriot Game Tonight
By B.J. Koubaroulis

I talked to South County football coach Pete Bendorf this week about the Stallions' (2-0) home match up with Annandale (2-0) tonight.

My first question to him was "How are you going to stop the Robinson kid?"

His answer came in the form of a question "You got any ideas?" Bendorf asked.

My response? "You might have someone get him in the parking lot before the game."

All kidding aside, Annandale wide receiver Melvin Robinson, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior, is among one of the area's top recruits in the class of 2011. For a high school player, he's as close to unstoppable as they come.


Veteran Line Drives Oakton Past Madison

Veteran Line Drives Oakton Past Madison

By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 5, 2009

At 6 feet 6, 247 pounds, Oakton senior offensive lineman Nick Koutris towered above the rest of his teammates as he howled through his face mask, slapped his chest pads and high-fived and chest-bumped all takers as the Cougars strutted to midfield for a warmup session prior to last night's 14-0 home victory over crosstown rival Madison in the season opener for both schools.

Koutris's swagger was a preview of the kind of football the No. 3 Cougars expect to play this season. He and the four other starting linemen to return as seniors from last year's 13-1 state semifinal squad -- Sam Strauss, Jonathan Hart, Austin Mayhugh and Trevor Yarnall -- showed flashes of last year's dominance, at times brutally owning the trenches, dominating the line of scrimmage and creating vast running lanes as Oakton manhandled its way to 330 yards of total offense and its second straight Outback Bowl victory.

The linemen "just know how to work as a unit, they know how to pick up blitzes, stunts, and they play off each other," Oakton Coach Joe Thompson said. "They have a sixth sense for each other."

The front five, which averages 220 pounds, sprung junior running back Luke Willis (74 yards) and protected junior quarterback Jimmy Boone -- a 6-foot finesse passer who amassed 148 yards passing and 73 yards rushing in his first varsity start. However, the Cougars were penalized 11 times for 85 yards.

According to Thompson, all five linemen are garnering college recruiting interest.

"We know the winning formula, we just have to put the work in to get back to that game 15," Koutris said.

Boone capped a six-play second quarter drive with a well-blocked screen pass to Willis, who reeled in the offering with a one-handed grab and streaked down the left sideline for a 7-0 lead. Boone added a one-yard plunge to give the Cougars a 14-0 lead before the half.


Stingy Defense, Blocked Punt Vaults Bulldogs Past Wolverines

Stingy Defense, Blocked Punt Vaults Bulldogs Past Wolverines

By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 12, 2009

Westfield senior Dylan Doty skirted through a slight opening in West Potomac's line and leaped over a defender, using his outstretched fingers to block a Wolverine punt. Teammate Vinny Caporossi pounced on the loose ball in the end zone for a second quarter touchdown -- a crushing blow in Friday night's 35-14 Bulldogs victory at home.

Caporossi and Doty, known previously for little more than their diminutive size (they both check in at 5 feet 8), helped Westfield (1-1) take a big step toward shedding a rebuilding label that stuck after last week's season-opening loss to Stone Bridge.

"We heard a lot of that [rebuilding talk], and it was just motivating," said Caporossi, who recovered two fumbles and was part of a defense that stuffed the Wolverines' high-powered offense four times on fourth down.

"I don't honestly feel that we're ever rebuilding at Westfield, I feel like we're just reloading," said Doty, who added a rushing touchdown and also batted down a surefire first-quarter touchdown pass from West Potomac quarterback Colin Mathewson.

With an undersize roster, its first season without a superstar recruit at running back and its second year behind a signal-caller whose last name is not Glennon, the Bulldogs might have appeared depleted.

But Friday night, Doty and Caporossi were just the headliners in an effort that saw strong line play, consistent quarterbacking from 6-5 senior Danny Fenyak (14 of 25, 124 yards, 1 touchdown) and a big effort out of their backfield foursome -- Doty, junior Bryan Monticue, junior Hayden Ferington and sophomore Kendall Anderson. The group combined for 183 yards on 27 carries and each scored a touchdown.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Former VT QB Glennon Coaching at Westfield

The Washington Post has launched a new set of sports blogs...

Former Hokie QB Coaching at Westfield
by B.J. Koubaroulis

The circle of life just keeps spinning right in front of Westfield quarterbacks coach Brian Day's eyes.

Day, who played quarterback at Fairfax in the 1990s for then-Rebels coach and now Westfield coach Tom Verbanic, was watching Thursday's North Carolina State-South Carolina game at his home with former Westfield quarterback Sean Glennon.

Glennon, who spent the past few years at quarterback for Virginia Tech, was sitting with Day as they watched Sean's little brother Mikey -- also a former Westfield quarterback and the 2007 All-Met Player of the Year (offense) -- get his first series of plays as a Wolfpack red-shirt freshman.

Mikey went 1-for-2 passing for zero yards in a 7-3 loss to South Carolina.

As they watched the game, "Sean was yelling at the T.V.," said Day, who groomed both quarterbacks during their time at Westfield. "I looked at him and said 'Yeah, now you know how I feel. I've been yelling at you on T.V. for the past four years."

The impact that both Glennon brothers had at Westfield is enormous, both setting records and winning state championships: (Sean, 2003) and Mikey (2007).

But the Glennons are still having a direct impact on Westfield football -- a factory that has produced additional studs like Evan Royster, Eddie Royal and many other football stars.

Sean Glennon has spent the summer helping as a quarterbacks coach with the Bulldogs, in particular grooming current QB Danny Fenyak.

"I like being around the game and it's a way for me to stay involved and help out and be around people I know," said Glennon. "Sometimes I get to do certain drills, throwing to receivers or throwing to nets, I goof around and challenge the kids. The main thing is having fun, being around football. I give them a unique perspective and they get a kick out of it too."

Sean Glennon went undrafted during the 2009 NFL draft, but signed quickly afterward with the Minnesota Vikings.

He was cut on July 19 to make room for Brett Favre.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Washington Post Launches New Set of Sports Blogs

The Washington Post launched a new set of sports blogs, check out my first post:

Renner's 5-Wide Attack Fuels Lake Braddock

I just got off the phone with Lake Braddock Coach Jim Poythress, who was doing his best to deflect all the preseason hype circling Burke and Northern Virginia about how good the Bruins are supposed to be this season.

"I guess the word is out," Poythress said.
Thumbnail image for Bill Renner.jpg
But, despite Poythress's pleas, the Bruins can't hide behind coaching cliches about "proving themselves."

Not when they have back two preseason All-Mets in 6-foot-6, 325-pound offensive linemen Khamrone Kolb and Keli Doe, a 6-2, 310-pound defensive lineman.

Not when they've got back 17 other starters, including brainiac quarterback Michael Nebrich.

And, especially not when they've added one of the most influential offensive minds in the Northern Region's storied coaching history in former West Springfield head coach Bill Renner, who signed on as an assistant this summer.

Renner, a former punter with Virginia Tech and the NFL's Green Bay Packers, went 57-47 at West Springfield in the past 10 seasons, most recently producing top quarterback prospects in former University of Virginia quarterback Peter Lalich (now at Oregon State) and Renner's son Bryn, who threw for 3,123 yards and 35 touchdowns last season before heading to the University of North Carolina for football and baseball.