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East County Friday, May 28, 2021 6 months ago

Former East County state champs reflect on what the accomplishment means

The former winners tell the newest champs how their achievements will be cherished in the future.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

The 2021 Out-of-Door Academy baseball players, Lakewood Ranch High softball players and Lakewood Ranch track and field star Riley Simmons reached the pinnacle of East County high school sports accomplishment with state titles in the spring.

They joined a select group of athletes — state champions — who have attended Lakewood Ranch, Braden River or ODA.

But could those titles seem even more important in the future?

It might take months or even years until they can appreciate their sensational feats.

Just ask the champs who have preceded them.

Kristin Wikstrom won the 800-meter run at the 2013 state track and field championships (2:16.45) for Lakewood Ranch High. Wikstrom is now the school's cross country and track and field coach. Courtesy photo.

Lakewood Ranch alumnus Kristin Wikstrom, then Kristin Zarrella, was a member of the Mustangs' girls 4x800 relay team that took gold at the 2012 track and field championships (9:14.15). She came back the next year in 2013 to win the 800-meter run (2:16.45).

Wikstrom remembered the relay win with more fondness. Wikstrom and her teammates —  Natalie Novak, Olivia Ortiz and Devin McDermott — had formed a tight bond that season. 

"Having that camaraderie was everything," Wikstrom said. "To share that win with them was amazing. The four of us still talk from time to time, every few months, usually when one of us remembers a funny joke or moment."

Recently, Wikstrom said, she was reminded that the foursome's team song was "Build Me Up Buttercup," and how they used to dance to it during practice. She shared it with the group. Those moments overlap with ones from the actual race. Wikstrom said she remembers being proud of McDermott for running faster than she had all season. That gave them the edge they needed, Wikstrom said.

As for her solo win, Wikstrom said, almost everything went against her race plan. She was dead last after the first lap, and Wikstrom always liked to get the lead early. It was also raining, which made things even tougher. Somehow, Wikstrom gathered the resolve to push ahead late in the race. 

"That win was a testament to me learning to have the maturity of an elite runner," Wikstrom said. "I had to go out of my comfort zone. I was feeling every emotion."

When she crossed the finish line, her arms were raised above her head. That wasn't a conscious choice, she said — just a reaction to the moment. 

Do those moments become more meaningful as time passes?

Brendan Bengtsson won the 2018 wrestling state title (285-pound class) while at Braden River High. Bengtsson said he has not forgotten the final moments of the match.

Brendan Bengtsson had only been wrestling at Braden River High for three years when he won the 2018 wrestling title in the 285-pound class. Bengtsson, who also played football, had no knowledge of the sport until he tried it to stay in shape, but he quickly learned the ins and outs. By 2018, he had a good enough grasp on proper technique, and plenty of natural strength, to make him think he had a shot at a deep state tournament run. He was right, and defeated Harmony High's Carter Harris 8-0 in the finals. 

Bengtsson, now a sophomore offensive lineman on the Ferris State University football team in Big Rapids, Michigan, said he talks about wrestling with a handful of his teammates who also tried the sport, and his state title will occasionally come up. Even if he didn't talk about it much, Bengtsson said, the memory will linger forever. 

"I'll never forget those last few seconds," Bengtsson said. "I could hear my family and my coaches counting down the time. It's hard to put what I was feeling into words. In team sports like football, you win big games and you get excited, but when it's just you on the mat, the mat you put your blood, sweat and tears into, it's something else."

M'Balia Bangoura won a singles and a doubles title while at The Out-of-Door Academy. Bangoura graduated from the University of Nebraska in 2020. File photo.

Like Wikstrom, former The Out-of-Door Academy girls player M'Balia Bangoura won both individual and group gold for the Thunder, taking a solo title in 2015 and a doubles title with partner Sydney Sforzo in 2016. Bangoura said the individual title was especially meaningful. She had missed the previous season with an ankle injury. Bangoura said coming back from the injury to win a state championship shaped her as a person, showing herself that she could do anything with enough hard work. 

"Tennis had been my life since I was 6 years old," Bangoura said. "I wanted to show that it was worth it. The whole time [before the match], I was thinking about how hard I had to bring it. Afterward, I was feeling relieved. I did it. I was just happy and proud of myself." 

Bangoura played two years of tennis at the University of Nebraska before deciding to end her competitive athletic career. She was burned out, she said. She graduated from the school in 2020. Bangoura said she doesn't normally bring up her title wins in conversation, though it is one of the first things people see when they Google her, so she does get asked about them sometimes. 

The three former champions share characteristics. They all have little use for their actual gold medals, keeping them in boxes or at their family's houses instead of having them prominently displayed. All three also have entered the coaching realm to various degrees. Wikstrom is the cross country and track and field coach at Lakewood Ranch High. Bengtsson volunteers with AAU wrestling programs when in Florida on school breaks. Bangoura works with individual tennis players looking to up their game.

The three champions gave similar answers when asked why they got into coaching: They want the next generation of area athletes to feel what they felt. It's not the hardware that matters in the end, they said. It's the moment, the bonds formed and the lessons learned. 

"I tell my athletes all the time, 'If I can do it, you can do it,'" Wikstrom said. "They only get four chances at it, and that's if they're lucky. I want to instill in them the drive that is necessary [to win]. It's a special thing." 

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I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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