By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
All Tonja Stewart wanted to do was run.
The problem was that not many others were ready to run with her.
That soon changed, though.
And when it did, Southeast High School became a state powerhouse in cross country.
It started with Stewart, who helped pioneer the team into existence by rallying runners together to grow the roster from only three in 1981 to five in 1982, allowing the Pirates to introduce girls cross country as a sport at the school.
All that first group did was finish fourth in the state that year.
Talk about sprinting out of the gate.
It was just the beginning.
The next year, in 1983, Southeast ran to the Class AA state championship.
The Pirates repeated in 1984.
The three-peat came in 1985.
The team’s head coach Ray Sheets, finds himself in awe even as the group celebrates the 40-year anniversary of their first state title.
“They ran against the best in Ohio and beat the best. They were 15-year-old veterans,” Sheets said. “I was a young coach, with twins who took turns coming in first in all the races, and we had a stable of thoroughbreds. We didn’t even realize we were a once-in-a-lifetime team. I had three years of some sleepless nights, hoping I didn’t mess up this team and didn’t break them down mentally or physically.”
Stewart was a junior standout in 1983, while the Dias twins — Joanna and Julie — bursted onto the scene as freshmen phenoms. The group that jumpstarted a dynasty also included Bonnie HIllegas, Kim Konkle, Bobbie Davis, Missy Stalker and Sue Conway.
It was group connected by the sport, but more importantly, by friendships.
“The camaraderie we had was out of this world,” Joanna Dias said. “Coach Sheets was beyond his years in the training we did, and he made running fun. We had an approach that was serious, and we put in the hard work, but we also knew how to keep it light and how to keep it fun.”
Running became part of their identity, but only because it also became a passion.
“We ate, slept and breathed running,” Joanna Dias said. “We were committed. We were disciplined and those are things that can carry over to anything you do for your whole life.”
As high-schoolers, it helped push them to the threshold of their maximum potential both from their own inner drive, but also through Sheets’ training program.
Sheets was hired at Southeast in 1977 and had run cross country in high school, as well as local 5k and 10k races before also competing in five marathons later on. Sheets was first named the boys cross country coach in 1980.
“I read a lot, but used my own personal trainings as the beginning of how to workout the team,” Sheets said. “Running, in general, is base, pace and and race. Our girls were disciplined to get their base set in the summer.”
The Southeast girls ran seven days a week in all of July and August, working to establish a base for members of team and those training sessions included 10-mile runs, then they would train hard against each other to establish their pace. The race part of the equation was fulfilled with Portage County League dual meets on Tuesdays and invitationals on Saturdays.
It got to the point, however, that the races themselves were not enough for the Pirates.
“After every race, which was only 3.1 miles, I made our team change and jog the course again,” Sheets said. ‘They hated it, but they realized as everyone else was done, they saw us jogging, laughing and running the course again as if the race was nothing but a training session and now we were running it again. Other teams had to be asking, ‘How can they be running, aren’t they tired’?”
In reality, they might have been, but Joanna Dias said that the team’s success, and maintaining it, was not something they thought much about.
Instead, it was just expected.
“The accomplishments were great. I mean, we were the best in the state, and I think we knew what that meant, but at the same time, I don’t think we grasped how good we were,” she said. “It was simple, when Coach Sheets said to run, we ran.”
And that straightforward approach worked.
When the Pirates won the team state championship in 1983, Joanna Dias won the individual title and crossed the finish line in a state of pure exhaustion in a time of 18:17.7.
“I remember finishing and Coach Sheets was right there with me, and we were hugging. I kept telling him that I was so tired I couldn’t breathe, and he told me, ‘You don’t have to breathe, you are a state champion’.”
Julie Dias finished runner-up in 18:27 and Stewart was third in 18:47.
The Pirates finished one, two, three.
It catapulted them to a national spotlight as the group was featured in a 1983 edition of Sports Illustrated’s popular “Faces in the Crowd” feature.
For the repeat state title in 1984, Julie Dias, then a junior, finished first overall (18:00.3) and Joanna Dias was third in 18:49.
“Our junior year, Julie was such a beast,” Joanna Dias said of her twin sister. “She was on fire and she had an amazing race.”
Also scoring in 1984 were Sue Conway, Joey Conway, Stephanie Ricketson and Bobbie Davis.
As seniors, the Dias twins finished one-two in the individual results, with Julie winning her second straight state title, completing the race in 18:17.9. Joanna was right behind her in 18:39. Also scoring in 1985 were Sue Conway, Joey Conway, Ricketson, Davis and Amy Neely.
“They were special groups to be around,” Joanna Dias said. “We all got along with each other. We did everything together. All of our parents knew each other and part of that was because of the size of our school, but I know it had a lot to do with how unique our group was, too.”
And their three-year distinction of putting Southeast on the map remains their legacy — highlighted by the fact that they also were responsible for forming the program.
“I never considered myself as a pioneer, but in a way, I guess I was,” said Stewart, who also became Southeast’s first track and field state champion when she won the 800 meters in 1982 (2:14.02). “All I knew then is that I thought it would b fun to have a cross-country team and thankfully the school supported it.”
Awesome story! Brings back so many wonderful memories! We would all go to the state meet to watch them. Nothing but pure excitement ❤️