August 27, 2014

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Elyria Sports Hall of Fame: Elyria Catholic track standout Mike Kozma found a new finish line following injury

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ED BETZEL/CHRONICLE

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ED BETZEL/CHRONICLE

Mike Kozma’s promising track career appeared in peril or at the very least at a crossroads his senior year of high school. But the Elyria Catholic standout managed to turn disaster into good fortune by being at the right place at the right time.

After Kozma pulled his right hamstring in the 220-yard dash finals of the 1979 Olmsted Falls Class AA sectional, ending his high school career, he wasn’t even going to attend the state championships at Ohio State.

Fortunately, he had a change of heart.

While at the state meet, Amherst coach Dick Cooley introduced Kozma to Indiana University coach Sam Bell. Kozma obviously made a good impression on Bell because he ended up earning a scholarship to IU, where he went on to letter four years and win a Big Ten title as a member of the 400-meter relay in 1980.

Kozma, 53, will be inducted into the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday with Elyria Catholic’s Dr. David Krol, Elyria High’s Jessy Verhoff and Tim Sweigard, Elyria West’s TJ Staton and the 1964 Elyria High football team. Jim Tomsic will receive the Distinguished Service award.

“Coach Cooley had an athlete, Jim Welte (class of 1978), that ran for Indiana,” Kozma said. “Bell was impressed with Ray (Armstrong, from Elyria West). Cooley told Bell that he needed to talk to me since I beat Ray twice earlier in the year.”

Kozma flew to Indiana the Saturday after the state meet and the day before his high school graduation and signed his letter of intent.

“I went to graduation on Sunday, moved out on Monday and enrolled at IU,” Kozma said. “Previously, I considered North Carolina State and a couple MAC schools. I had a lot of schools that were interested initially since I took third at AAU nationals at Lincoln, Neb., in the 100 my junior year. But I still hadn’t really made my decision before the injury. I figured that I was going to have to walk on somewhere.

“I guess things happen for a reason. If I had not gone down to the meet, Indiana wouldn’t have become reality. I easily could have been sitting at home that weekend sulking with a sour grapes attitude. I wouldn’t have ended up at IU, which was a fantastic opportunity both from an educational standpoint as well as athletically.”

Still, the injury at sectionals was tough to take.

“It was quite devastating,” Kozma said. “I won the 100-yard dash and we won the (440-yard) relay. I felt fine in the 100. I felt a little twinge in my hamstring from the relay afterward. I stretched out, warmed up and came back in the 220.”

The injury didn’t come out of nowhere, however. Kozma had issues with the hamstring earlier in the season. He was forced to sit out a dual meet and the Comet Relays after injuring it in a meet after the Lorain County Relays.

Kozma’s senior year began well. He won the 100 (9.8), 220 (22.8) and 440 (51.4) dashes in the season opener at Olmsted Falls. Kozma soon followed with a season-best 9.62 in the 100 at the Lorain County Relays.

Despite the season-ending injury, Kozma was voted on to Team Ohio for the Midwest Meet of Champions.

Kozma’s track career took off his sophomore year when he finished seventh at the Class AA state meet in the 100 and 220 after winning sectional titles in both races.

His top rivals during that time primarily were Armstrong and Greg Jones, both from Elyria West, along with Clearview’s Darrell Thomas.

Kozma couldn’t crack Armstrong his junior year. He ultimately finished second to Armstrong in the 220 (21.6) and third behind the second-place Armstrong in the 100 in 10.0 at the state meet.

Kozma defeated Armstrong twice in the 100 his senior year. Once at the Lorain County Relays and the other time at the Olmsted Falls sectional just prior to his injury.

“I was really looking forward to the 220 with Ray,” Kozma said. “He was better at the longer sprints (220, 440). We were civil. It’s not like we were best buddies, but he contacted me a couple years ago when he moved back into the area and we talked on the phone for quite awhile.”

Kozma’s hamstring problem resurfaced his sophomore year in college when he tweaked it in a dual meet against Michigan the week prior to the Big Ten meet. He was the Hoosiers’ No. 1 sprinter sophomore year, highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the 300 meters at the Big Ten Indoors meet. He was Indiana’s No. 2 sprinter behind Albert Robinson as a junior and senior.

“It was a great opportunity running in the Big Ten,” Kozma said. “Who knows where I might have ended up? We had some phenomenal trips. We went to Oregon to run in a dual meet at Hayward Field. There were 5,000 people there for a dual meet. It was packed. It came down to the last event — the 1,600-meter relay — and their guy edged our runner at the tape to win it. It was pretty cool. We ran against Tennessee in Knoxville. We went to the Florida State Relays every year during spring break.

“One of the most memorable meets was my senior year when we ran an indoor triangular at Wisconsin with Georgia and I got to run against Herschel Walker in the 60. Herschel, for as big as he was, could really move.”

Kozma has been a branch manager in the banking industry for the past 30 years and for PNC the past 11.

Kozma and his wife, Cindy, live in Elyria. They will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in August. They have two daughters, both who attend Elyria Catholic. Rachel is a senior and Sarah is a sophomore.

Contact Paul Heyse at 329-7135 or ctsports@chroniclet.com.

If You Go:

WHAT: 43rd Elyria Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet

WHEN: Saturday, social hour at 5 p.m.

WHERE: Spitzer Center, Lorain County Community College

TICKETS: $35. Deadline is today. Available online at elyriasportshalloffame.org using PayPal or by contacting Linda Schuster at Elyria Catholic at schuster@elyriacatholic.com or 365-6390 ext. 120.

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