The Indoor Track Team’s Long Road to States


Courtesy of Amelie Cotta

The Bison qualifiers at the Nike Indoor Nationals in Staten Island, NY on March 13.

The Bison indoor track team had to jump more hurdles than usual in order to compete in the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches (OATCCC) state championship on March 4 at Spire Institute in Geneva. 

Some 30 athletes qualified from boys and girls teams for this year’s tournament based on performance throughout the season.

Coach Willie Smith, who has been coaching Beachwood’s team for over 20 years, has won multiple state titles and who was recognized as national track & field coach of the year last year, missed the Feb. 25 registration deadline.

 Although Smith acknowledged responsibility for missing the deadline, he emphasized that for the past twenty-two years, the registration process has been the same, but this year the registration date was moved five days earlier. 

“Beachwood was never formally informed,” Smith said. “There was no hard copy sent to either [Superintendent Dr. Bob] Hardis, [Athletic Director] Ryan Peters nor myself as the head track coach.” 

Athletic Director Ryan Peters and others close to Coach Smith described the communication breakdown as resulting from the difference between those who use social media and those who do not. 

“They put it on social media, but Coach Smith is not a social media person, he’s not somebody that goes on Facebook or Twitter,” Peters said.  So he never got notified of the deadline change.” 

In a letter dated March 3, OATCCC officials claimed that the new registration deadline was announced at the general membership meeting in January, and that 11 emails were sent reminding coaches of the deadline. 

The letter also alleged that in a Sunday, Feb. 27 phone call, Coach Smith asked for an exception to be made, and that he also asked OATCCC officials to consider allowing the boys to compete if  not the girls.

“No exceptions or favors could be offered to allow his team entry into the meet as there certainly would be other requests for such favors after the accepted list of entries was published,” the letter stated. “Furthermore, his offer to have the Beachwood boys team compete and not the girls team would have subjected Beachwood High School and the OATCCC to Title IX violations.” 

Coach Smith and other Beachwood staff have denied that any such request was made.  

Once we found out we were gonna compete, yes, it was a relief. And it was amazing to be part of that moment, seeing people literally in tears at a courthouse over a track meet like, that’s a very impactful moment.

— Senior Amelie Cotta

After the OATCCC refused to allow Beachwood runners to compete, the Beachwood community came together to pressure the organization to change its position. 

The story gained attention in local media with stories published in the Cleveland Jewish News, and WKYC among other outlets.

Subsequently, Beachwood community members including city council members reached out to the team, offering their help.

“It’s just such a harsh measure for such a harsh penalty, [so] I pulled a team together,” said Eric Synenberg, who is Vice President of Beachwood City Council and also an attorney in private practice.

“We made contact with the governor’s office, our state senator, our state representative Kent Smith and wrote a letter to the organization, urging them to change their decision,” Synenberg said. 

Community members including Beachwood Mayor Justin Berns and Ohio Representative Kent Smith sent letters to OATCCC hoping to appeal to empathy. 

But the OATCCC did not reconsider their decision. 

Beachwood City Schools couldn’t take any legal actions against the OATCCC, but Coach Smith could because he and his team were facing damages. 

“The benefit of being a member of the organization, which is to compete in the state tournament, the athletes, while they’re now not technically members of the organization that runs the meet, they’re certainly going to  be harmed and they’re going to  suffer harm that cannot be made up for, even if they were to sue for money, they didn’t want money. They wanted to be able to run in the race,” Synenberg said. 

But Synenberg knew he couldn’t file an injunction in a day by himself, so he searched for help and landed upon Attorneys Mark Bennet and Dean Depiero who ended up aiding Synenberg in filing the injunction for this case. 

“They [Mark Bennnet and Dean Depiero] dropped everything else that they had to do that 

day and this [filing the injunction] became their entire job for the rest of the day,” Synenberg said.  

Senior Noah Seidel explained why his name ended up on the filing.

Because I’m 18 and a senior, the oldest on the team, they put it under my name,” he said. “It was also important because I was in many different  relays that wouldn’t have been able to compete, and we were placed first [based on entry times], so it was the understanding that.. [my name would be on the filing], but it could have been any of us.”

The team worked to quickly get it signed by Coach Smith and to file it immediately. However, they faced an obstacle when the file would not submit as an E-file with the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. 

“I got the call from them [Mark Bennet and Dean Depiero],” Synenberg said. “[The injunction] didn’t file… It didn’t go through. [I realized we were] going to have to file it in person. So [it was] sort of another obstacle.” 

They were able to submit it in person and were assigned Judge Kenneth Callahan who, after fifteen minutes of questioning Head Coach Smith and Synenberg, decided to allow the athletes to run at the OATCCC States Championship. 

“There were tears shed tears of happiness. It was a surreal moment, and sort of like one of those moments where your life could be like a movie,”  Synenberg said. 

Senior Amelie Cotta described what that experience felt like for her.

 “Once we found out we were gonna compete, yes, it was a relief,” Cotta said. “And it was amazing to be part of that moment, seeing people literally in tears at a courthouse over a track meet like, that’s a very impactful moment.” 

Just running there felt different, because we knew they weren’t on our side and they really didn’t want us to run. So we had something to prove, and we wanted to show how Beachwood could run track.

— Senior Noah Saidel

The experience of running at SPIRE on March 4 was a little bit different. 

  “Just running there felt different, because we knew they weren’t on our side and they really didn’t want us to run,” Saidel said. “So we had something to prove, and we wanted to show how Beachwood could run track.” “In terms of actually competing, we were at a disadvantage,” Cotta said. “[Our previous times put us in the] top two, maybe in contention for being state champs in the 4×2, but because of the whole situation, we were put with teams that were significantly slower than us.”

Because they ran with a slower heat, they didn’t have the push that comes with having one’s toughest competition running in the next lane.  

“…They compared our times with all the teams that were our main competition, so we got third, instead of higher, like we [might have],” she said. “But it was still very memorable, given our circumstances. You know, with that setback, it was kind of annoying.” 

“We kind of put it past ourselves and just got in the moment and just ran,” Cotta added. 

At the OATCCC State Championship, the track and field boys team finished in 7th overall and the girls team finished 21st overall. 

The following week the team competed at the indoor national championships in New York. The boys finished sixth, which qualified them as All American. 

“If we didn’t run at states we probably wouldn’t have gotten as good times at nationals,” Saidel said.

Smith told the Cleveland Jewish News that there were no “sour grapes” between his team and OATCCC.

“We got our opportunity, that’s all we wanted,” he said. “It would’ve been a storybook ending to win, but we won in other ways. We set an example for other communities through the display of support we got. When a community comes together, anything is possible. We’re really thankful for the outpouring of love and support we received.”