Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

December 27, 2012

Small-townies grew up to do big things

By Michelle Miller
Cooperstown Crier

---- — In 2012, there has been a handful of people who grew up in the local area who have really strived. Some of them were even able to make it back to their childhood neighborhoods to share their journey.

Triathlete Sarah Groff visited Cooperstown in November to share her dream of making it to the Olympics. She just missed the podium at the London Games. Her message: “Yes, even small-town kids can achieve whatever they set their minds to.”

Groff said it does not take a child prodigy to be really good at something. It takes a lot of hard work, patience and determination no matter what goal one is trying to achieve, she said.

“What I want you to realize is, if you set your sights on something, and you may have to sacrifice a little bit along the way, I definitely did, you can achieve your dreams,” she told students at Cooperstown Central School.

Becoming an Olympian was not a childhood dream for Groff, she said. She said it was something she started reaching for along the way.

According to Groff, her dream was to just get to the Olympics. “I was able to achieve that and more,” she said.

It is not the destination but the journey, according to Groff, who finished fourth in London — just 12 seconds away from the gold medal. She said her journey really began in Cooperstown where she participated in different things, but was never “outstanding” at any one particular thing. She did break a record for swimming the length of Otsego Lake at the age of 13, however.

Groff, who lives in Hanover, N.H., attended Cooperstown Central School through her sophomore year and competed in cross country, swimming and track in high school. She also sang in the choir, played French horn and enjoyed science. Groff finished school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. She went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a Division III All-American in the freestyle. She double-majored in conservation biology and studio art.

With graduation coming around the corner, Groff said she decided to pursue her triathlon interests.

“I had done a few of them, but I had not done anything too great. It was not like I was winning” she said. “I just thought it would be cool to take one thing and try to be really good at it. Well, it turns out that one thing is really three things. I wanted to take that one aspect of something I had interest in and see how far I could get.”

It could have not panned out, according to Groff. She said it was a big risk, but one she was willing to take largely because she felt her parents would support her in whatever she wanted to do as long as she took a logical approach to it.

Groff said she gave herself a two-year limit.

The hardest part of the journey was fracturing her pelvis before the Olympic tryouts, she said.

“Patience and hard work over time equals results,” she said. “I am absolutely living proof of that.”

So what is in Groff’s future? She said she has four or five years to improve and become an even better triathlete.

“I know I have room to grow when it comes to running,” she said. “I hope to get back to the Olympics and make it on the podium next time. I will have bigger expectations.”

Groff said she never had the chance to have someone who grew up in Cooperstown stand on stage and say, “Hey you know what? You guys can do it, too.”

She was not the only one who came back to old stomping grounds to share a can-do attitude with CCS students. CCS 2008 graduate Phil Pohl visited his alma mater while back in Cooperstown visiting his father for the holidays.

As a young athlete, Pohl was drafted by the Tampa Rays out of high school, but denied the offer. Instead, he has spent the last four years playing Division I baseball for Clemson University and was drafted in June in the 28th round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Oakland Athletics.

Why did he turn down the offer? He said it was not the way he was raised.

“Education was always viewed as very important in my house when growing up,” he said. “It was not like it was a first-round thing. I had the opportunity to play for Clemson and still get an education.”

The ballplayer, who picked up his first baseball at the age of 4, said his first really difficult challenge was moving to Cooperstown. Pohl said he did not want to leave his home and friends back in Bakersfield, Calif.

“I was 10 when my parents told me we would be moving. I was devastated of the thought of having to start over,” Pohl said while speaking to an auditorium full of middle and high school students. 

Pohl said he is now proud to say he is from Cooperstown – known to be the home and mecca of America’s pastime.

“I was 13 when I really sat down and decided I wanted to be something more than an average high school athlete,” Pohl said.

Pohl said he was never anything out of the ordinary — just somebody with a dream who went for it.

“I was never the biggest or the fastest, so I always had to outwork my opponents,” he said.

The high school standout did admit that he thought he would go to college and “run the show” to speak, but was hit with a rude awakening. He began to struggle.

“I had never struggled on the baseball field before and started to doubt myself. I wasn’t going to give up, though.”

Pohl said he did think about transferring to a smaller college, but thought he owed it to Clemson to stay since he was given a scholarship to play there.

His sophomore year did not get much better, however. Pohl had to deal with a setback — during the NCAA Tournament a freshman was given the starting catching position. According to Pohl, he was not having a bad day; he was having two bad years in a row.

“My mother said something to me that helped turn things around. She said, honey — she always called me honey — you are there for a reason and you have to believe in yourself,” Pohl said.

The young athlete said he realized he hadn’t really hadn’t had much faith in himself and started to do something about that.

“I stated doing something about the things I could control (working hard and keeping a good attitude),” Pohl said.” The positive attitude became contagious.”

Pohl started the last 25 games behind the plate for the AZL Athletics, a minor league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. He had a batting average of .301, an on base percentage of .375 and a slugging average of .469.

“I hope I played good enough to move up,” Pohl said. 

Milford native Paul Wolfe is not behind the wheel of a NASCAR vehicle anymore, but he is making a lot of the behind-the-scenes calls as a crew chief.

According to ESPN, the average NASCAR fan wouldn’t know Paul Wolfe from Beowulf. However, ESPN reports no crew chief has done more the last two seasons than Wolfe.

Wolfe and young driver Brad Keselowski had enormous success together in the Nationwide Series, winning six races in 2010 en route to the title. No one knew if Wolfe could make it happen at the Cup level for Keselowski, who had no top-5s and only two top-10s as a rookie in 2010 under crew chief Jay Guy.

Everything changed under Wolfe. Keselowski won three races last season and finished fifth in the Chase. This year marked the biggest achievement, when the No. 2 won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. The victory came when title contender and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson pulled out of the season finale because of a parts failure. Keselowski stayed out of trouble during the final 60 miles, which turned into 40 victory laps around Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Wolfe started in NASCAR as a driver in 2000 and worked for a series of teams as a driver and crew chief before joining Penske Racing and Keselowski in Nationwide Series in 2010.

“It has been obviously a long road and a lot of hard work,” Wolfe, a 1995 graduate of Milford Central School, said of his journey from being a Wildcat to being the crew chief. “I just continued to put myself around good people. I am very lucky to work for a good company in Penske Racing and a great driver with Brad.”

Keselowski first approached Wolfe about being his crew chief in 2009, but was turned down. When he started with his team at Penske, and Wolfe’s name came up, Keselowski reportedly told his bosses, “good luck with that; he already said no.”

However, by then, everything had changed for Wolfe, whose former team at CJM racing had lost funding.

“Originally, well, I consider myself a pretty loyal guy,” Wolfe said. “I was committed to my team at the time. At the end of that season, we lost our funding, so at that point, I looked at all my options. I had raced with Brad, and I saw what he was capable of doing. I thought he and I could work together and contend for the championship.”

Wolfe said he never expected that he could be a NASCAR driver, but he wanted to get into the sport for a long time.

“I drove on a lot of local short tracks in upstate New York,” he said. “When I moved down south, the main thing is I just wanted to be in the sport of NASCAR. It is amazing how far we have gone in just our second year.”

Somebody who has been on the big stage for a while was able to get home this summer and perform.

Dwayne Croft, a 1979 Cooperstown Central School graduate and internationally known baritone opera singer, played the role of Harold Hill in “The Music Man” as part of the Glimmerglass Festival.

At the time, Croft said there was nothing like being back home and being able to perform at the Glimmerglass Festival, where he had been introduced to opera.

“It’s where I got started,” he said. “I was a trumpet player in the high school band. They needed a band to march across the stage for one of the performances and I got to be a part of that. I fell in love with it, and started watching it a lot.”

Croft said he joined the opera’s chorus and took on small parts in 1976. He sang in his first featured role with the company in 1982 as Yamadori in “Madama Butterfly.”

According to Croft, every show was performed at the Cooperstown High School from 1977 to 1996. The Opera House was built in 1987, and Croft said he was the first person to sing on the new stage. It was with an orchestra to get a feeling of what the sound would be like, he said.

The artist worked at the opera every summer until 1990 when his aspirations shifted him to the Big Apple.

In 1989, Croft was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program. He has appeared in more than 400 performances of 30 roles at the Metropolitan Opera, including the title role of Billy Budd, Pelléas in “Pelléas et Mélisande” and the title role in “Don Giovanni.”

In 1996, Croft received the Richard Tucker Award, which honors an American singer “poised on the edge of a major national and international career.”

Since then, he has traveled all around the world to perform.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, director of “The Music Man,” said having Croft perform the role of Harold Hill was a real treat for the production and for Croft’s hometown.

“Croft was born to play Harold Hill; he is passionate about playing him honestly and with great gusto,” she said.

“Although his path took him away from the musical theater, his stature in the opera world certainly gives him the confidence to tackle this iconic role now. He lives authentically inside this story because he has such a connection to the part,” she added.

The opera singer bought his own place here in 2006 and also owns a place in New York City. Croft said his mother and brother, Bob, who drives a bus for Cooperstown Central School, also live in the area.