May 11, 2005 in Sports

Burgess won’t toss away her second chance

The Spokesman-Review

There seems to be less and less happily-ever-after in the pulp romance of college athletics.

It’s an old story, getting older. Boy/girl meets coach. Lands scholarship. Doesn’t get enough playing time/can’t find the classroom/does find the courtroom. Transfers out. Coach mumbles good riddance.

They always say recruiting isn’t an exact science, but what about retention? So troubled are the educrats of the NCAA about the shuttle of scholarship athletes that it’s a central part of the Byzantine new Academic Progress Rate that will soon be used to lash schools into, well, playing the ones they brung.

Just what the APR will make of McKenzie Burgess we can only guess. Since things have worked out so smashingly for both her and Washington State University, they’ll probably be docked points on general principle. That always seems to be the NCAA way.

By way of introduction, Burgess won three events – the shot put, discus and hammer – for the Cougar women in their dual track victory over Washington late last month. In her first spring with the team, she’s already cracked the school’s all-time top 10 in all three throws … and has almost zero chance of scoring a point for the Cougs in this weekend’s Pacific-10 Conference championships in Los Angeles. That’s how stacked the league is.

“It’s ridiculous,” she admitted, “but if I had one blowout day. . .”

But it hardly matters. She’ll go into coach Rick Sloan’s personal Hall of Fame just for her contributions in beating the Huskies.

Just as she’ll go into volleyball coach Brian Heffernan’s personal Hall of Fame for her cut-to-the-chase realism and unclouded perspective.

It was about 2 1/2 years ago now that Burgess, a good-at-everything athlete from little Benton City, Wash., signed a letter of intent to play volleyball at Wazzu. Cindy Fredrick, the coach at the time, was predictably enthusiastic about her, and though she played sparingly as a freshman Burgess felt that would change in due time. Then she suffered a herniated disk weightlifting during the summer, and struggled with her conditioning and learning a new system under Heffernan.

“It was a frustrating season,” Burgess said. “I knew from the season before my capabilities and I thought I could get better, but I just couldn’t contribute to the team.

“Brian hung in there. He was always looking for options – ‘What if we do this?’ – and we tried a lot of different things, but in the end my heart just couldn’t find it. And if you don’t have your heart in the right place, you have to be playing on pure talent and there wasn’t enough of that. It was just very hard, being around the girls and knowing I wasn’t helping them.”

In the middle of the season, Heffernan summoned Burgess to his office – not exactly a come-to-Jesus meeting, but “just to see if her perceptions matched my evaluation,” is how the coach put it. “I did have some concerns about her ability to contribute at the Pac-10 level.”

In other words, this was the beginning of the end.

It’s at one-on-ones like these when it’s often suggested that an athlete might be happier at another school, probably at a lower level of competition. More playing time, less pressure. It’s difficult for the coach to say, “You’re not good enough” – especially if he or she recruited the athlete in the first place; it’s even harder for the athlete to hear.

Except that Burgess had already been having the debate with herself, to an extent.

If she couldn’t find happiness playing volleyball anymore; it was more likely that she’d move home and finish school at WSU’s Tri-Cities campus and get on with her notion of teaching kindergarten.

Until Heffernan asked her what it was she wanted to do, exactly.

“I was always one of the stronger girls on the team,” she said. “Everybody made fun of me because I would swing like a shot putter. It was an inside joke. So when Brian asked what I wanted to do, I said, ‘Well, you’re always making fun of me for looking like a shot putter, maybe I should do that.’ ”

Burgess had been a three-time state champion in throws in high school. So when Heffernan phoned WSU throws coach Debra Farwell about this turn of events, he wasn’t selling her some anonymous clunk.

And it’s not as if the track team is in the business of collecting culls and castoffs.

Still, Burgess acknowledges this was something less than a well-thought-out decision.

“I had never thought about it, really,” she insisted. “I was just sitting in that meeting. I never thought I’d walk away from (volleyball) – I just assumed I’d keep pounding away at it. But just sitting there this came to mind. It was hardly premeditated.”

Burgess had missed a hunk of the track team’s fall conditioning, and she had to prove herself – both her seriousness and her ability. But she certainly filled a need for the Cougs, and track filled a need for her.

“It felt so good to find a place I belonged at the Pac-10 level, something to contribute to,” she said. “Not just being a bump on a log, but giving something back to your team. To get this second chance is incredible.

“I’m like every other college student. I’m here to get an education, but to have fun doing it and find a real love and a goal.”

Multiple ones, actually. She’s added 4 feet to her high school shot put best, throwing 46 feet, 5 1/2 inches last month. She has an NCAA regional qualifying mark in the discus (156-4). And she’s fallen in love with the hammer, even when the implement throws her and not the other way around.

“Oh, I’ve biffed it quite a few times,” she laughed.

There is a price for this happiness. Burgess had to relinquish her volleyball ride when she switched sports and she did it with no guarantee of any track aid. Nonetheless, she’s already looking forward to “getting my butt kicked” in summer workouts in Pullman, in between taking 18 credits of summer school. If her new timetable works out right, she’ll graduate next spring and get in two years of grad school before her track eligibility runs out.

It’s no wonder, then, that Heffernan calls this story “kind of a fairy tale.

“If McKenzie had wanted to stay with our program, she would have been more than welcome,” he said. “But she’s mature beyond her years. What was refreshing to me was that it took us less than two minutes in that meeting to get this out on the table, that her real passion was track and field. All I was a catalyst.

“Today’s athlete, growing up through high school, is often put on a pedestal. There’s not always a sense of awareness. What caught me by surprise was McKenzie’s ability to discern what it was she wanted, and how realistic she is.”

Which is the quickest way to happily-ever-after.

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