ACBF HOF nominee Melody Holt has come full circle at PV
By KARL PEARSON
A story she tells on herself from back in the early stages of her athletic career gives the observer a notion of Melody (Holt) Nowakowski's nature.
"When I was a freshman, I split time between the JV and the varsity," the 1985 Pymatuning Valley graduate recalled. "We were playing against Jefferson and they were beating us pretty bad.
"Shellie Crandall was a senior for them. (PV coach) Beth (Helfer) sent me in for the last few minutes of the game. When she put me in, she told me to deny Shellie the ball."
"I did everything I could think of to make sure Shellie didn't get the ball, and she didn't. I wasn't even paying attention to anything else.
"Anyway, after a while, I felt a tap on the shoulder and realized it was Shellie. She had a big smile on her face and said ‘Say, you know your team has the ball.' One of (Nowakowski's teammates) had stolen the ball. It was pretty embarassing."
When relating the incident to her later, Crandall, who confessed to a hazy recollection of her basketball exploits at Jefferson, did recall that moment.
"Yeah, I do remember that," she said with a chuckle. "It was pretty funny."
Now, nearly 25 years later, the three protagonists in that little play will be linked again. Nowakowski and Crandall will be entering the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame as members of the third class at the annual ACBF awards banquet on Sunday at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. They will be joining Helfer, who was in the inaugural group of inductees two years ago, in that distinction.
That memory may be a bit embarassing to Nowakowski, but she did little, if anything, to be chagrined about during a stellar career at PV. Her 1,139 career points, which ranked fifth among Ashtabula County girls when she graduated, is still holding up, standing 15th of the county's 21 Grand Players, girls who have scored 1,000 career points.
Nowakowski averaged 25 points a game her senior year and was named the Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year. Despite those accomplishments, plus a solid career at Lakeland Community College and Baldwin-Wallace College, Nowakowski seems somewhat amazed by her selection.
"I guess it still hasn't sunk in," she said. "In fact, it's somewhat embarassing to see the girls I'm going to be joining. Going in with people like (Crandall), Roberta (Cevera Blakeslee), Chris (Fitting) and Tammy (Busser Moodt) is pretty amazing. I guess it's nice to still be remembered."
She figures to have one of the larger family contingents at the banquet, led by her husband, Andy, and twin sons Austin and Grant. Her parents, Shirley and Warner Holt, brothers Gus and Myke, and inlaws Gene and Wilda Nowakowski, will be among the supporters, too.
Nowakowski's path has never taken her far from the basketball court, even heading back to PV for a teaching and coaching career.
"I didn't do it on purpose," she said. "That's just how it worked out. If you had asked me in high school, I would have said I would never do it.
"I put my application in at a lot of schools, but the pieces just fell into place," Nowakowski said. "PV was the first school to offer me a job. Some other places called after I got the PV position, but I already had a job."
When she returned to her alma mater, Nowakowski was reunited with Helfer. For four years, Nowakowski was the Helfer's junior-varsity coach. Then, in 1994, she was named to replace Helfer when the latter was fired.
Coaching had its own frustrations and rewards.
"The biggest challenge is motivation," Nowakowski said of coaching. "You always have two or three girls who are serious. But it's tough to get your whole team to want to be a success. It can get to be frustrating."
But she benefitted a great deal from the tutelage of several fine coaches.
"I learned a lot from Beth," Nowakowski said. "She was always very supportive of the girls and truly cared about each player and tried to bring out the best in them. She took me to games all over and I learned a lot just by watching.
"I learned a lot from my coach at Lakeland, Ken Bollam, too. He really tried to build things up there and brought in players like Heidi Litwiler and Stacy Cover (both of Conneaut)."
Moving on Baldwin-Wallace as a junior, she learned an entirely different set of lessons from her first coach there, Bonnie Raye.
"She was very laid back, but very sincere and very truthful," Nowakowski recalled. "I respected her honesty."
But Raye kept one matter from her team — her battle with lupus. It claimed her life before Nowakowski's final season at B-W. Cheri Harrer, the present Yellow Jackets coach, was her final coach with the Yellow Jackets.
"What a brave woman (Raye) was!" Nowakowski said. "We had a feeling she was sick, but she never complained, and we didn't know until toward the end. What an example!"
Nowakowski used the sum of the knowledge she had gained over the years to lead the PV girls to unmatched heights.
"I think I was able to take something from each of my coaches," she said. "Then you hope to add your own personal touches."
The Lakers won 21 straight under Nowakowski in 1996-97 before falling to Brookfield, 60-39, in a Division III district semifinal. The next year, they repeated as East Suburban Conference champions, defeating archrival Grand Valley, 53-48 in overtime, to clinch the title. PV's 19-3 season ended in equally dramatic fashion with Mandy Burzanko's three-point basket at the buzzer giving Berkshire a 57-55 win over PV in a Division III sectional final.
"Nobody can take the 20-0 (regular season) away from those girls," Nowakowski said of her 1996-97 team. "But the next year might mean more to me. We lost three girls who all went on to play college basketball. No one expected us to do too much. That was just as special as the year before."
Nowakowski found other things back home in Andover, namely her husband, her "No. 1 supporter." Her sons, Austin and Grant, were born while she was still coaching basketball, but she stepped down as girls basketball coach after the 1998-99 season to devote more time to her family.
Note the basketball connection in naming her children, now 10 and fourth graders at PV Middle School, where she teaches. Austin's namesake is Cleveland Cavaliers great Austin Carr, while Grant is named after another player Nowakowski admires, the Orlando Magic's Grant Hill.
It seems she can never get far from athletics and basketball. She is completing her first year as PV athletic director, succeeding, of all people, Helfer. Her basketball lessons still apply with matters like the girls Division III sectional-district tournament PV still hosts.
"I learned to be disciplined from basketball," Nowakowski said. "It helped me be a better person. It helps in dealing with people and getting along with me. They may not always agree with you, and you may not please everybody, but you can still work together.
"I had to learn to be organized. I know how important it is to communicate. It was never a goal of mine to have this job, but I love it."
Basketball will be a big part of the Nowakowskis' lives for a long time to come, too.
"The boys are already gym rats," she chuckled.