RACINE — Taking the baton from Jenna Turner that day on June 2, 2017, freshman Olivia Pitrof dug in for her third leg of the 4x800-meter relay.
This was the preliminaries of the WIAA Division 1 Track & Field Championships at UW-La Crosse and Horlick, which had already set a school record in the event that season, was trying to make a statement.
And then the unthinkable happened. Pitrof’s shoe flipped off midway through her leg.
What would a freshman do in such a situation on this pressure-packed stage? Panic? Break down in tears? Try to retrieve her shoe?
“There was no hesitation,” Horlick track coach Lorenzo Venegas said. “She just kept running like nothing ever happened. In fact, I didn’t even notice that it was off until she finished.
“That just speaks a lot to her tenacity and perseverance. She was there to do one thing and that was to compete — not for herself, but for her team.”
Fast forward to the night of Dec. 18. The Horlick girls basketball team was playing Case in a Southeast Conference showdown in Case’s fieldhouse and Pitrof had prepared herself emotionally to have the game of her life.
“Olivia struggled last year against Case both games,” Horlick coach Ambrial Sanders said. “I think in her head when she walked through that gym, she thought, ‘I’m going to play for my team, I’m going to play hard and I’m not going to let the past affect me at all.’ I mean, she was a monster.”
Tirelessly working in the post, the 5-foot-11 junior center produced 36 points, 16 rebounds, three steals and a block. But it didn’t mean a thing to Pitrof afterward because the Rebels had just been edged 73-72.
“I think the team aspect is one of the most important parts of the game,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what one person does.”
These two anecdotes go a long way in relating what Pitrof is all about as an athlete and a person. In her world, it’s all about the team and her personal accomplishments mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
But there’s so much more about her that elevates her into role-model status.
Pitrof ranks among the top 10 students of her junior class with advanced-placement classes that include chemistry, Spanish and medical intervention. She is considering a career in politics because she would like to make a difference.
She counts as among her most influential people Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. She excels in cross country, basketball and track. Oh, and she loves to cook.
Any regrets so far, Olivia?
“Honestly, I think I’m lucky to say right now that I have no real regrets in my life,” she said.
And she means it, too.
“Olivia is like the picture of a student-athlete,” Sanders said. “Like, we have study tables for anyone who is struggling in classes and she still comes even though she’s not struggling in any classes.
“She’s willing to help anyone. When I’m like, ‘Hey, ‘O,’ can you help someone with their work?,’ she says, ‘Sure.’ She’ll do whatever it takes to help someone be as successful as they can.”
Pitrof deserves to be listened to because of how she has managed her own life. The most recent example is how far she has taken her game this season, averaging 20.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.9 steals, 2.2 assists, 2.1 blocks.
With Pitrof setting the tone, Horlick is off to an 8-3 start after going 9-13 last season. The Rebels have been in a slump with three losses in their last four games, but the left-handed Pitrof has been a consistent force inside.
“What I like about Pitrof is that she uses her length and her wingspan to her advantage — especially on the offensive end when she posts up,” said Racine Lutheran coach Steve Shaffer, whose team defeated Horlick 75-56 Dec. 13. “She is very difficult to guard on the offensive end when she’s posting up because of how much space she can take in getting low and wide.
“And it really makes it easy for the guards to get her the ball and she’s capable of finishing either way — with her right hand or her left hand. You pretty much have to double team her when the ball goes into her and try to make her give it up before she can score on you.”
Pitrof got a good start learning the nuances of the game. That came courtesy of her father, Ken.
“My parents have definitely been big influences,” Pitrof said. “With basketball, it’s definitely my dad because he’s coached me ever since I was in second grade. He taught me so much and I know the game so well because of him.
“He always taught me how to move, how to see the floor, and I just think my knowledge of the game has come from him — just seeing a team and knowing what defense they’re in and knowing what to do about it.”
She also has gained an edge playing against her brother, Tony, who is a sophomore guard on the Horlick boys team.
But as much as Pitrof has progressed in basketball, her long-term goals extend far beyond the game. She is still formulating in her mind what she wants to do with her life, she knows this much: Pitrof would like to somehow inspire change.
“I just see a lot of what’s going on and there’s a lot of things that people will complain about,” she said. “I think that’s one of the biggest problems. If you want to make a change, you have to do something yourself.”
Pitrof already has a pretty strong track record in that regard.