On the gridiron, court or in the field, McDonald’s Matthias Tayala was one of Ohio’s best.
By Joe Scalzo
Ten days before the 2010 football season started, McDonald senior Matthias Tayala was sleeping on his couch at 9 a.m. when a group of friends came over and said, “Come on, we’re going to go play a game of volleyball.”
Tayala was a little groggy, but he agreed and got in the car.
Pretty soon, he noticed something fishy.
“We went to the high school and I was like, ‘What are we doing?’” Tayala said. “They were like, ‘Come with me.’”
It was an ambush. For the past month, his friends had been pestering him to play quarterback. He kept saying no, arguing that he already played two sports (basketball and track), that he hadn’t played football since he was a sophomore and that joining a football team 10 days before the season — at quarterback, no less — was a bad idea.
They didn’t care.
His friends took him to the coaches office, where he got another recruiting speech. Tayala thought about it that night, then watched a scrimmage the following day and said, “All right, I’ll play.”
That was the beginning of one of the best 10-month stretches in McDonald sports history. After a lackluster 1-2 start to the football season — which Tayala blamed on himself — the Blue Devils won nine of their next 10 games before falling to Mogadore in the Division VI regional final.
Tayala earned third team All-Ohio honors, then immediately turned to basketball, where he averaged 18.3 points per game for the Blue Devils, who went undefeated in the regular season for the third straight year and advanced to the regional finals for the first time in school history.
After earning first team All-Ohio honors (and passing 1,000 career points), Tayala immediately started track and field, where he eventually won individual state titles in the discus (setting a state meet record in the process) and shot put to lead McDonald to the Division III team title.
For his performance, both as an individual and a teammate, The Vindicator has named him its 2010-11 boys athlete of the year.
“To me, an athlete like him is almost a thing of the past,” McDonald track coach Louis Domitrovich said. “Coaches want kids to focus on one sport but at a school as small as ours, we encourage kids to do as much as they can.
“It was impressive to watch, no doubt about that.”
Tayala’s frame (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and athleticism are the source of his versatility but Domitrovich always tell his athletes that it’s not necessarily what you have that makes the difference, it’s what you do with what you have.
“He works so hard in all three sports,” Domitrovich said. “For him during football season to not doing anything related to track, I was totally impressed. Track is his passion. But he knew he had to concentrate on football during football season.”
That devotion extends off the field, where Tayala is one of the school’s best-liked students, Domitrovich said.
“If I was in high school, I could see myself hanging out with Matthias,” he said. “First of all, he’s a good person. He doesn’t care if you’re a nerd or a 4.0 student, he hangs out with everyone.
“He was a teacher’s aide for one of my classes and he interacted with my seventh graders as well as he does with his peers and just as well as he does with his coaches.”
For all his talent in the throwing events — his 197-foot throw during the regional meet was less than eight feet off Ohio’s all-time record — Tayala is just beginning to tap his potential.
Playing basketball and football kept him lean, which made it difficult for him to build muscle mass. At Kent, he’ll be able to add events like the hammer, the javelin and the weight throw, so his best event may still be a mystery.
What isn’t a mystery is his legacy. Tayala is the type of athlete people will be talking about in 25 years, Domitrovich said.
“McDonald has had so many good athletes — I’d say great — so for him to be in the discussion as perhaps the greatest three-sport athlete in the school history, and perhaps the greatest track athlete, that’s saying a lot,” he said. “Athletes like him only come around once in a coach’s lifetime.”
Ohio’s top softball player (again), Poland’s Erin Gabriel also plays with America’s elite.
By Tom Williams
In the year since the Poland High softball team finished Division II state runner-up, Bulldogs ace Erin Gabriel has twice won Gatorade’s Ohio Player of the Year, committed to the University of Tennessee, pitched her team to a state title and qualified as the youngest player on the 2010-11 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team.
Is there any wonder she’s a repeat selection as The Vindicator’s Female Athlete of the Year?
“What a team leader,” says Poland head coach Reid Lamport. “She’ll throw a no-hitter then help carry the equipment to the bus. She has remained quite humble despite her membership on the Junior National Team.”
This spring, Gabriel went 16-1 on the mound, with five no-hitters and 13 shutouts. One of those was against Keystone LaGrange in the state title game on June 4 at Akron’s Firestone Stadium when she tossed a one-hitter in a 4-0 victory that gave Poland (27-2) its first state softball championship.
Gabriel’s junior season featured an earned-run average of 0.70, 234 strikeouts in 109 innings and 26 walks. Opponents batting against were limited to a batting average of .112.
Her only loss was a 4-3 decision to LaGrange in April where all four runs were unearned.
At the plate, Gabriel was the Bulldogs’ cleanup batter with a .570 batting average, eight home runs and 45 RBIs. Her slugging average was 1.051, her on-base percentage was .640 and her average with runners in scoring position was .744.
Yes, it was quite a season for Poland softball. The Bulldogs’ 6-1 regional final victory over Walsh Jesuit was Lamport’s 500th career victory.
“I became aware of it when they announced it [after] the game,” Gabriel said. “I’m not good with stats.”
Gabriel, the daughter of George and Lori Gabriel, loves Lamport’s approach.
“His practices are well-structured, he always has us ready,” Gabriel said. “He gives us notes before the game to read to get us mentally focused. There’s normally a little Scripture [passage] in there [or] a quote.
“I think the biggest area where he helps us is our mental toughness.”
Gabriel’s sophomore season was watched by dozens of college scouts. Her commitment to Tennessee last fall brought an end to that hoopla.
“I honestly didn’t even notice when they were there because I kind of have to focus on the game,” Gabriel said. “Especially when there were so people in the stands, you can’t see them anyway.”
Last June, Gabriel qualified for the U.S. National team despite a sore arm.
In August, she represented the U.S. in a tournament in Bogota, Colombia. The lasting memory she brought back has little to do with the game.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is not even the softball side of it,” Gabriel said. “It was experiencing what they have to go through in daily life, how they have to live.
“I mean no hot water, can’t drink out of the faucets, trash on the streets — it just make you appreciate what you have. I had to learn that ... I really [came] to appreciate what I had at home.”
One of her teammates was Dallas Escobedo, a pitcher for Arizona State that won this spring’s College World Series.
“On the softball side, you’re playing with the best athletes ... so I’m surrounded by a ton of talent which makes me better,” Gabriel said.
In November, Team USA will travel to South Africa.
Most of her summer will be spent practicing or playing in exhibition games around the country or playing with her travel team, the New Jersey Breakers.
She estimates she’ll be away for 90 percent of the summer but she will be home to be a bridesmaid for her cousin’s (Christine Kelly) wedding. In August, she’ll be on Poland’s girls varsity soccer team.
“My [main] influences are my parents, how hard they’ve worked for me,” Gabriel said. “My Dad [once] did not know anything about softball but [became] my pitching and hitting coach.”
She credits her mom for keeping things in perspective mentally.
She said she also owes a debt to pitching coach Dom DeLuca.
Gabriel also praised catcher Meredith Testa who took over behind the plate after Megan Hirschbeck graduated in 2010.
“I give her all the credit in the world for what she did this year,” Gabriel said. “She gave up basketball so she could catch me over the winter and really be prepared. She knew she had big shoes to fill and she filled them.”