NEW PORT RICHEY — Karissa Bertling gazed across dying grass on Ridgewood’s football field, looking back at her childhood.
The 16-year-old junior sprinter stood next to Sue Vien, the Rams track coach since the varsity program began in 1984, on Wednesday afternoon. Bertling calls Vien a mother figure, and together they talk about the early days, like mom and daughter skimming through a scrapbook of memories.
Bertling was just 6 when she began running for Vien’s defunct Alpha Omega AAU program. Back then she ran in all-comers meets at USF and played in the sand most other days.
“As soon as she saw the person that won the race came home with this big medallion she was in,” Vien said. “As soon as they brought the hardware out she was there.”
This weekend, Bertling could earn some more hardware as a state-title contender in three events (100 meters, 200, 400).
At 5 feet, 6 inches and roughly 115 pounds, Bertling is one of the fastest runners in the state and the fastest Ridgewood girl since Char Foster, who won three state titles in the 1990s before she went on to South Carolina.
Bertling is seeded second in the 200 (57.01), third in the 100 (12.19) and fourth in the 200 (24.89). Vien, always a coach first, sees this as an opportunity to set Bertling up for multiple state titles as a senior. She’s also trying to convince her to run the 800, though Bertling has been resistant.
“To be on target for a state championship she needs to finish in the top three as a junior,” Vien said. “That’s my thought process. …Coming in top three as a junior would be awesome.”
Try telling that to a girl, who still remembers the sting of losing a 400 race to a field of boys on Ridgewood’s track when she was still learning to run. Bertling only sees herself as a winner.
“I remember that race for some reason,” Bertling said. “…I’d love to win one (title); that would be something.”
Vien believes Bertling’s window of opportunity, in terms of impressing college scouts, is this summer on the AAU circuit. Bertling will run for her AAU team in Clearwater, but has already captured the attention of several schools, including LSU.
Even more eye opening is the number of service academies that have shown interest. That could mesh well with Bertling’s desire to earn a paid education on her way to becoming a police officer or possibly a federal agent.
Bertling was drawn to track at an early age most because of Vien. Older sister Heather was a track standout for the Rams and Vien’s AAU program. Karissa often found herself chasing her sister’s times, then relied on Heather to help improve her technique.
What sets Bertling apart from her sister is her height, about a 4-inch advantage, Vien said. She also has a dedication to the sport and has incorporated weight training this year.
“I had abs when I was in kindergarten,” Karissa said. “I followed in my sister’s footsteps, but I just wanted to be better.”
Bertling will see some tough competition this weekend, but already faced powerhouse Oak Ridge in the Class 3A, Region 2 meet at Harmony. Next is Miami Jackson sophomore Robin Reynolds, who has four state titles and is seeded higher in all three events.
“I try not to think about (state) because it will make me more nervous,” Bertling said. “…I don’t want to think like a loser, and I don’t want to get shut down.”
State track meet
Where: Showalter Field, Winter Park
When: 3A, Friday. 4x800 relay and field events, 1 p.m.; running event prelims, 4 p.m.; running event finals, 6:30 p.m.
County qualifiers, boys: Central — Theodore Robinson (400); Land O’Lakes — Matt Schwartz (3,200); Mitchell — Tyler Ross (400), Jeff Wakefield (300 hurdles), Ricky Trinidad (200); Nature Coast — Ja’Juan Story (100, 200, 4x100), Tevin Drake (shot put, 4x100), Antwan Story (4x100), Isaac Bailey (4x100), Bruce Federico (1,600); Ridgewood — Tony Perez (triple jump), Mason Chilmonczyk (1,600); Wiregrass Ranch — Alex Kazanski (pole vault), Ryan Pulsifer (3,200); Zephyrhills — Benjamin Williams (4x100), Tyler Pohjolainen (4x100), Jamal Roberts (4x100), Cody Van Buren (4x100)
County qualifiers, girls: Central — Raquarra Ishmar (discus, shot put); Gulf — Colleen McAuliffe (1600); Land O’Lakes — Nicole Woodard (high jump, long jump); Mitchell — Kelli Williams (1,600, 800); Nature Coast — Danielle Doucet (400); Ridgewood — Karissa Bertling (100, 200, 400); River Ridge — Mikeala Morolla (pole vault); Springstead — Jacki White (4x800, 800, 4x400), Sasha Spalding (4x800, 4x400), Kailey Genrich (4x800, 4x400), Mikayla Bogulski (4x800, 4x400); Wiregrass Ranch — Ariel Grey (4x800, 1,600), Fern Powell (4x800), Kelsey Sturman (4x800, 4x400), Marissa Davis (4x800), Nikita Shah (3,200), Marissa Tomei (4x400), Shavaun Walker (4x400), Melanie Dean (4x400); Zephyrhills — Katherine Patton (discus), Heather Haynie (adaptive shot put), Lindsay Arnold (100 hurdles, 300 hurdles)