Derek Taylor: Mary O's legacy will stand test of time
A generation before Mychal Johnson, well before Alexis Hornbuckle and Renee Montgomery and even before Vicky Bullett, there was Mary Ostrowski.
The Parkersburg Catholic graduate who was the state's first true women's basketball star was a 6-foot-2 powerhouse who dominated the sport in its infancy as an SSAC championship event, guiding the Crusaderettes to Class A state championships in 1977 and 1978, winning the Russell A. "Rat" Thom Award as the state's girls basketball player of the year each year from 1977-79.
Ostrowski, who also guided Pat Summitt-coached Tennessee to NCAA Final Four appearances in 1981, '82 and '84 and played for the United States team that won the gold medal at the 1983 World University Games, died Friday night at the age of 51 following an extended battle with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer.
"Mary was a great person who battled this disease with the same fight and determination she displayed as a competitor on the basketball court," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said in a statement released by the university Sunday afternoon.
"It's difficult to process and accept the loss of a wonderful woman like Mary, and our hearts and condolences go out to her family."
Warlick, who was a senior guard with the Lady Vols during Ostrowski's freshman season, took over for Summitt in 2012 after serving as a Lady Vols assistant coach since 1985. Her use of the word 'family' is particularly noteworthy in recognition of Ostrowski's passing for reasons that exceed its place in an obligatory statement of sympathy.
Every current and former high school girls basketball player in West Virginia is family to Mary Ostrowski.
"Parkersburg Catholic High School, all former and current Crusaderettes and the sport of basketball are blessed beyond belief to have been affected by Mary Ostrowski," Maggie Boelter said Sunday afternoon
Boelter, a rising senior point guard at Kenyon (Ohio) College and an All-State pick while at Catholic in 2009 and '10, said Ostrowski's life and career served as a multi-dimensional blueprint for not just PC athletes, but for everyone who knew her.
"Mary O not only provided me with a role model in terms of basketball but also in terms of what it meant to be courageous and strong and brave in the face of adversity.
"I think that's a legacy that will continue to be celebrated forever."
Unlike many star athletes who move on to bigger and better opportunities in their sport than are afforded them at home, "Mary O" also maintained a strong bond with her hometown and prep alma mater.
"What I leaned is that Mary O never once showed she had an ego. She was a gracious young lady, one of those rare people you grew to both like and respect," Parkersburg News & Sentinel Sports Editor Dave Poe wrote in a column on Ostrowski's passing Sunday.
Poe was my boss from 1998-2001 when I worked in Parkersburg. For reasons unknown — bad timing, conflicting beats, what have you — I never met Ostrowski. I regret that fact.
Her imprint is everywhere on girls basketball in the Mid-Ohio Valley, particularly in Parkersburg. Catholic's holiday tournament is aptly called the Mary O Crusaderette Classic and the school's continued success in her sport has helped keep her name from ever being too far from the consciousness of those who follow the game. Catholic has won a state-best nine championships since the state tournament began in 1976.
Women's sports have an impressive history in West Virginia that often gets shoved to the margins of our collective memory. For instance, Ostrowski was inducted into the University of Tennessee Hall of Fame in 2006, though her induction into the West Virginia Sports Writers Hall came later, in 2012.
By that time, she was unable to attend the ceremony and her brother, Paul Ostrowski, spoke on her behalf at the annual Victory Awards Dinner, which was fittingly in Parkersburg.
The WVSWA's decision earlier in 2012 to rename the Rat Thom Award as the Mary Ostrowski Award was a substantial move in the right direction of better recognizing not only Ostrowski but also the athletic successes of young women in our state in a greater historical context. Scott's Makenzie White was the first winner of the renamed award.
There is no need to say a player is "Jerry West of modern girls basketball," or so forth. There is already a more-than adequate parallel between the historic pinnacle of West's high school sport and that of current stars like Johnson at St. Joseph, Taryn McCutcheon at Parkersburg South, Logan's Shayna Gore and Spring Valley's Sarah Kelly.
It's Mary O. It will always be Mary O.
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT