The game opened doors
Third of a series...
By KARL PEARSON
When she was in seventh grade, Trixie Wolf was a tall girl whose coordination was still catching up with her. As preparations for the season at Jefferson Junior High were being made and with 20 girls on the team, there was some thought of cutting her from the roster.
That's when Jefferson head girls basketball coach Rod Holmes interceded. He knew size is an element that simply can't be taught, and at 6-foot, Wolf already possessed that element. It would just take work and patience to bring out the capabilities he saw in that young girl.
"When you've got a 6-footer in junior high, you don't give up on them," he said.
What probably wasn't as evident at that stage was the youngster's capacity for work and the determination to succeed. But, apparently fueled by that show of faith, the daughter of Linda and the late Barry Wolf kept after it, playing at every opportunity she got, especially during the long, hot summer days on the outdoor courts at Ashtabula's Walnut Beach, many times against boys, to improve her skills.
"Trixie worked very hard to become a fine player," Holmes said. "She'd go in the summer and play on the blacktop up there with guys. She made herself into a Division I college player."
Holmes' decision to keep Wolf around eventually proved mutually beneficial. She finally grew to 6-2 and, along with Cheryl Coon, a 6-3 player, became part of the twin towers that gave Jefferson strength on the boards and from 15 feet in. Combine that with a lightning-quick little point guard named Anita Jurcenko and fine perimeter players like Heather Kelner and Sue and Steff Nemet and the Falcons had quite a powerful group that dominated area girls basketball in the late 1980s and early 1990s and took on some of Ohio's greatest powers in the sport before her graduation in 1991.
From Wolf's standpoint, the faith Holmes demonstrated in her paid off, not only in high school, but in a place in Division I college programs, first at the University of Maine, then Duquesne University. It also gave her the chance to travel, investigate an opportunity that finally didn't pan out for professional basketball in Ireland and in coaching jobs at several stops in far-flung places throughout the United States and back at Duquesne.
That doesn't mean she ever stopped paying back to the Jefferson program, even long after she was out of the community. Holmes acknowledges his gratitude to Wolf for that, too.
"After graduation, Trixie was always willing to come back and help out with our program," he said. "I remember one time a couple years later, she drove up from Pittsburgh because she heard we were playing against a team with some really big girls and she worked with some of our big girls and really helped them out."
It is only in recent years that Wolf has left the basketball merrygoround. Now, she is wife to Sean Rife, to whom she has been married for almost three years, and stepmother to Sabrina, 11, and Abby, 8.
She has also taken a new career path, following up the masters degree in environmental science she earned at Utah State University in 2003 with the pursuit of another masters in environmental engineering from Youngstown State University, which she hopes to complete by the summer of 2009.
"We lived in Virginia in 2006," Rife said. "While I was there, I became aware of all the problems they have with the environment in the Chesapeake Bay area, a lot because of decisions made in housing planning around there.
"I'm hoping to get involved eventually in helping to plan housing developments that take into account protection of the environment, too. Eventually, I'd like to have my own firm to deal with those issues."
She puts her new direction in perspective.
"I finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up," the 34-year-old said with a laugh.
One more link to her basketball past comes April 6, though, when Rife is inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. She will join old teammate Jurcenko and players she looked up to like Di Anthony, Kelly Boggs and Traci Hozian in that institution.
"It's kind of a surprise to me," she said. "I didn't realize there even was such a thing.
"I'm very honored, especially after hearing the list of names of the other people that are already in it or are going in. I remember watching Di, Kelly and Traci and playing against some of the other girls. I'm really pleased."
Taking up the game
In ways, it was almost a natural thing for young Trixie Wolf to end up playing basketball. After all, there was that height.
"Being the tallest kid in the class, everybody expected you to be an athlete," she said. "I always liked basketball. Sometimes, we'd go over and play at my grandma's house."
A basketball tournament at Jefferson Elementary when she was in sixth grade really ignited a passion for the sport in her.
"I remember we had a competition between the classrooms," Rife said. "I think Heather Kelner and Laurie Miller were on my team, too, and we won. That sparked an extreme interest in me."
Still, even though she avoided the cut in seventh grade, she didn't play a lot. That wasn't very satisfying, so she went to work. That paid off for her eighth-grade season for coach Tammy Wludyga.
"Things started to click in eighth grade," Rife said. "Then I had Coach (Jeanine) Bartlett my freshman year, and she really helped me a lot.
"By my sophomore year, I was playing five quarters a night, two JV and three varsity. We had older girls in front of me like Billie Schubert and Jackie Whitbey, but late in the season Billie got sick, and I got a lot more varsity playing time."
It also helped that she had a coach like Holmes, who taught with a gentle, yet firm, hand.
"He'd just let us play," Rife said. "He'd give us direction, show us the options and then let us go play. I think he knew he had smart players who could play, and I think it was our goal not to disappoint him. He was a great coach for me."
For his part, Holmes knew he was blessed, too. Wolf, Jurcenko, Kelner, Coon and the Nemets were the second wave of his fine teams, following Anthony, Boggs and Hozian.
"The thing that made Trixie special was her ability to run the floor," he said. "She was a great rebounder and not a bad shooter from inside 15 feet.
"The other thing, Trixie was such a hard worker. She loved a challenge, and she always stepped up to it."
Her junior year was when things really started to break out at the varsity level. It started on the tournament trail in the district finals at Chardon against West Geauga and continued from there.
"I remember playing that game against West Geauga," Rife said. "That was the hardest game I ever played. Coach Holmes told us if we got tired to hold up our fist and he'd take us out. The second time I did that during the game, he just stood there and shook his head at me. I already knew what I had to do, and I guess that gave me my second wind."
Then, the Falcons faced Garfield Trinity at the regionals and its vaunted 6-6 center Vonda Ward, who was headed to play at the University of Tennessee for coach Pat Summitt. Ward, now the women's heavyweight boxing champion, led Trinity to the state championship that season.
"That was quite a battle," Rife said with a laugh.
"But Trixie more than held her own against Ward," Holmes said.
In her senior year, she really blossomed, averaging 15 points, 17 rebounds and six blocked shots a game to earn honorable-mention All-Ohio honors. She was also Player of the Game for the Star Beacon Senior Classic with 25 points, 18 rebounds and six blocked shots.
For her career at Jefferson, Rife finished with 603 points, 711 rebounds and 259 blocked shots, shooting 45.8 percent from the floor. Most importantly, in 65 career games, her teams posted a 58-7 record (.892), winning Northeastern Conference championships in her junior and senior seasons after finishing a game behind Riverside in her sophomore season.
In Rife's junior and senior seasons, Jefferson posted back-to-back 23-1 campaigns, something that has been unmatched in area basketball history.
On to college
Those numbers attracted the attention of college coaches, but another area coach, Kevin Snyder, who was then at Madison, helped get her to Maine.
"Jodi Kest, who was an assistant at Maine, asked him if there were any big girls around our area that could help at that level, and he mentioned me to her," Rife said. "I had offers from places like American University, Youngstown State and Washington University, but I had to have either a D-I or D-III scholarship, and Maine was Division I, so I took that."
It wasn't a good fit.
"It was 12 hours away, which was too far from home and I had to deal with a lot of homesickness," Rife said. "The winters there are horrible, too, even worse than Ohio. Plus, Trish Roberts, the coach, was a real screamer."
Fortunately, Duquesne and assistant coach Katie Abrahamson, rode to the rescue. She played her last three years there for Dan Durbin, who would impact on her basketball life later, too.
"Duquesne worked out well," Rife said. "I was close enough to home, but also far enough away.
"My sophomore year was rough, but I was sixth man my junior year and started my senior year. I loved playing college ball with the TV games and the road games. We beat teams like St. Joseph's and George Washington and we played Ohio State with (WNBA star) Katie Smith."
On her own
After college, Rife led a rather nomadic life.
"I went to North Carolina to teach for a while," she said. "Then I went to Texas (in 1998) and was teaching and coaching there. But that was a lot of six-hour bus rides. Then I thought I had an opportunity to play in Ireland, but it didn't pan out."
So she returned to the U.S. and landed a teaching job for the 2000-01 school year at Riverside High School, where she, rather ironically, ended up as an assistant volleyball and track coach. But an opportunity to work for her masters at Utah State, a school renowned for its outdoor environment, came after that year.
"I'd rather be outdoors," Rife said. "That's why I loved playing basketball on the outdoor courts when I was a kid."
Just as she was finishing her masters at Utah State in 2003, Durbin called with an offer that had real appeal as one of his assistants at Duquesne. There she did everything from scouting to recruiting to practice organization through 2005. During her tenure, she even came back to Ashtabula County and served as the keynote speaker at the Ashtabula County Women's Scholar-Athlete Association banquet in 2004.
It was also during that time that she met Sean Rife. They were married in May of 2005.
"We met at church in Pittsburgh," she said of her husband, who is a chef.
Durbin was fired, which cost Rife her job, too. The Rifes moved to Virginia for a year, but Trixie couldn't find a teaching job there, so they moved back to the Pittsburgh area and she has decided to embark on her new career adventures.
Although she may be away from the court now, Rife acknowledges the skills acquired in basketball still carry her through her busy life as family person, student and potential businesswoman. After all, she finds herself balancing family obligations with driving 45 minutes each way from her home in Wexford, Pa. to YSU for her new studies.
"Almost everything in my life has come about from basketball," she said. "It was something I could do as a kid that I could get right and do well. It taught me work ethic and that you can't expect to get something for nothing. It showed me that life isn't always fun.
"It helped me get my education. My mom (who now lives in California) always wanted (Rife and sisters Candy and Amy) to go to school, but it would have been much tougher for me without basketball. It allowed me to travel and learn a lot about all kinds of people. Definitely, the game had its good points."