Greatest Athlete #17: Bettenhauser could do it all at SWR
Poor Keith Del Mar.
Here was his chance to shine, an opportunity to own bragging rights over all his buddies. In a Pitch, Hit and Run contest, the 12-year-old Del Mar of Miller Place finished first among all the boys in July 1987, which, logically would seem to mean he finished first among all the competitors.
Only Del Mar finished a distant second, 30 points behind the winner.
An 11-year-old girl.
One can only imagine the wisecracks that followed from the boys’ friends after losing to a younger girl. To which he invariably could have replied: ‘You wouldn’t have beaten her either.’
If Del Mar needed any consolation, he could have spoken to the father of the little girl who was quickly learning himself how difficult it was to beat her in any sport. In the driveway of their Wading River home, father and daughter would play pickup basketball games. A player himself back in high school and in Police Athletic Leagues as an adult, the father had no mercy battling one-on-one against his daughter. Victory had to be earned.
Not long after that Pitch, Hit and Run contest, daughter broke through, at last beating her dad.
Just a few years later, her name would become synonymous with high school athletics in Suffolk County as one of the most dominant three-sport athletes this area has ever seen. She stands today without question as the greatest female athlete to walk the halls of Shoreham-Wading River High School.
She is Keri Bettenhauser.
When the high school sports season ended in June, a standout three-sport athlete from Garden City made headlines for her eye-popping accomplishments. In soccer, basketball and lacrosse, Barbara Sullivan was selected to Newsday’s All-Long Island teams, becoming the first athlete in the 49-year history of the awards to be honored three times in one year, according to Newsday.
Of course, there is one caveat.
Back in the early ’90s when Keri Bettenhauser was ripping balls through the net in field hockey and whiffing batter after batter in softball, the newspaper didn’t print All-LI teams in those sports. If it had, not only would Bettenhauser in all likelihood have been a three-sport All-LI player, she likely would have been honored as both a junior and senior.
She already had the honor sowed up in basketball, where she was a two-time All-LI player who finished her career fourth all-time in Suffolk County for career points with 1,780. She has since slipped down the list after the likes of Nicole Kaczmarski (Sachem), Samantha Prahalis (Commack) and others began rewriting the records books in the years to follow.
In the fall of 1992 as a junior, Bettenhauser finished second in the county with 40 goals in field hockey. By comparison, Debi-Michelle Jantzen of Shoreham-Wading River led Suffolk County in goals last fall with 26. Only one other player in the county scored more than 17 last fall.
By the spring of 1993 in softball Bettenhauser was posting a 23-1 record as a pitcher, losing only in the state semifinals to Chenango High. When the dust settled on her softball career a year later, she proudly owned school records for career strikeouts, strikeouts in a game, runs, RBIs, home runs and stolen bases. Over three sports she was a 12-time All-County player.
READ THE NEWS-REVIEW STORY OF SHOREHAM’S 1992 SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
“She is unequivocally the best player I have ever coached,” her former softball coach Judy Conwell said in a 1992 interview with Newsday — before Bettenhauser had even played her junior season.
She had the size, speed, toughness, determination and natural athleticism to excel in any sport she tried. As a senior she was an honorable mention All-American in basketball. She settled on field hockey in college at Northeastern University, where she became a three-time All-American, earning first-team honors as a senior in 1997. She is one of only two players in Northeastern history to be a three-time All-American.
“Athletically she’s at the top five percent if not the number one athlete we’ve had,” said Northeastern coach Cheryl Murtagh, who is entering her 24th season as head coach.
Northeastern reached the NCAA Tournament in all four of Bettenhauser’s seasons. In both her sophomore and junior years the Huskies advanced to the Final Four, the farthest the team has ever gotten to this day.
In 2005 she was elected into the Northeastern Hall of Fame and most recently in 2008, the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s humbling in a way because I can’t believe these people recognize me,” the 35-year-old Bettenhauser said. “I never saw myself as being that successful. I just did it because I enjoyed doing it. It’s definitely a huge honor.”
Sprawled across the family’s dining room table, divided into three sections, was all the recruiting information from colleges for each of the three sports Keri played. It came in handy, because when a college coach called, they would have to look on the list to see which sport the coach represented.
“You didn’t want to talk to a basketball coach and she was calling for field hockey,” Keri’s father Ken recalled. “When a coach called you looked on the list to see the name and say ‘OK, you’re basketball.’ ”
Most high school athletes who play multiple sports have a clear No. 1 when it comes to which one they can play in college. Keri fielded Division I offers in all three of her sports.
That she ended up at Northeastern for field hockey was the most unlikely ending.
It was an overwhelming process sorting through schools, an undertaking that left her more drained than anything she did athletically. Her father figured she’d play basketball, her mother softball.
Keri recalled one recruiting trip with her parents when they were driving through Chapel Hill to see the University of North Carolina. Theresa Buscemi, UNC’s first softball All-American in 1992 who later married current Eastport-South Manor coach Steve Giacolone, helped arrange the meeting with the Tar Heels, Ken said. For whatever reason, once they reached UNC, Keri awoke from the back seat and told her parents to keep driving, adamant she didn’t like it.
“We still talk about that,” she said, forever unsure of what irked her that day.
“I’m thinking ACC tickets,” Ken recalled. “I’m a big North Carolina fan.”
It wasn’t meant to be.
In basketball schools like St. John’s, Georgetown and Villanova all expressed interest. But it would be the sport where she garnered the least attention that she ended up choosing.
Keri never played field hockey outside of the school team, so she remained tucked away from the glare of most college coaches. She was a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
Nancy Cole, a legendary field hockey coach at Centereach, happened to be good friends with Murtagh, the Northeastern coach.
“She said you got to come down and see this kid on Long Island,” Ken said.
“There was always a question I remember of her interest in softball and basketball,” Murtagh recalled. “I think softball was one she was really looking at.”
As Keri sorted through her options, she kept the process closely guarded with her family as the questions swirled from outsiders over her future.
“There was definitely a lot of people on the outside trying to figure out A, what sport I’m going to play and B, what school I’m going to go to,” she said.
Murtagh and Northeastern — the only school to recruit Keri for field hockey — won the sweepstakes, a decision Keri said she ultimately made on her own. To this day, she still doesn’t know exactly why she chose field hockey.
“I really loved playing softball,” she said. “I never in a million years thought I’d play field hockey in college.”
It’s a decision she in no way regrets. She enjoyed playing for Murtagh, her teams were successful and she loved Boston.
She burst onto the scene in the fall of 1994, winning the America East Conference Rookie of the Year award. In her senior season she was the conference Player of the Year, a season that still stands as one of the best ever. Her 24 goals is tied for second most in conference history and her 62 points is third most. She finished her career with a school-record 153 points, which was surpassed once in 2004.
In all her years coaching, Murtagh said one of her favorite memories came from the 1996 conference championship game against Boston University. Northeastern, having been pummeled by BU earlier that season, let a 3-0 lead slip away and the game went to overtime. In the extra session Keri raced down field in 29 seconds to score the game-winning goal and lock up the team’s third straight conference title.
“Those are the kind of things she would do that made her stand out,” Murtagh said.
As the youngest of four siblings, Keri grew up in a house where sports was a huge part of everyone’s life. Her sister Cheryl, who was six years older, was an All-County field hockey and softball player for the Wildcats. Her brother, Ken Jr., four years older, was an All-County shortstop and pitcher on the baseball team that won the county championship in 1990. Both went on to play in college, Cheryl at Niagara University for softball and Ken at Bentley College.
“When I was younger they would definitely beat me up and they would never let me win anything,” Keri said. “I admired them for not letting me win and making me want to be better.”
From the moment she woke up each day until it came time for dinner, she was outside playing one sport or another.
Her parents moved to South Carolina 11 years ago, as did some of their neighbors. When Keri, who now lives in Massachusetts with her 3-year-old son, sees them now, she’s reminded of how her constant athletic activity around the house drove the neighbors nuts.
“We’d all sit around the table drinking and they’d be like, ‘I hated you! You would get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and we would hear you dribbling the basketball or doing something that was just irritating.’”
They can laugh about it now.
When Keri made her debut on the junior varsity field hockey team as a seventh-grader, she erupted for five goals. The coaches saw all they needed and immediately called her up to varsity, pending a physical agility test that presented no problem.
By eighth grade Keri had already developed into one of the top players on all three varsity teams. Having already sprouted to her height of 5-foot-8, she earned All-Conference honors in field hockey and was the league Rookie of the Year in basketball. In softball she played the most demanding defensive position on the field in shortstop. It would be her only season at short before moving to pitcher as a freshman. At the plate she hit over .400 and set a school record for RBIs in her first season.
While almost always the youngest player on the field, Keri never thought about age. She didn’t look at players as seniors or freshmen, but viewed them merely for their ability to play the game.
“Looking back on it now, I don’t think I really felt like a deer in headlights just because I was so young and probably stupid enough to just be like ‘Yeah, I’m just doing something I love,’ ” she said.
She played the game with a carefree joy, blinded from any of the pressures to perform.
“She likes to laugh and loves to play and that’s what becomes most visible about her,” Conwell said in a Newsday interview during Keri’s eighth-grade season.
The question on everyone’s mind during the 1992 field hockey season was: Who would score the most goals? At Shoreham Keri Bettenhauser had already established herself as one of the elite scorers in the county. And a few miles down the road, for the defending state champion Miller Place Panthers, another player was making her mark as an all-time great scorer — Melissa Panasci.
They were the same age. They played the same three sports. And their teams met year after year, including several times in the playoffs.
Outside the fields and court, the two never interacted or even played together on any team outside of school.
As the season wound down in October 1992, both players were tallying goals at an astounding rate. They each netted hat tricks for their teams the same day in separate blowouts when the Panthers won 6-0 over Sayville and the Wildcats downed Riverhead 5-1. Panasci took the lead with 32 goals on the season, a number Keri would match two days later when the Wildcats defeated Rocky Point.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON MELISSA PANASCI.
Former Miller Place coach Judy Kopelman said it was an important milestone for the players to see who could finish on top. When the Panthers went comfortably ahead in a game, Kopelman would often leave Panasci in while taking out the rest of her starters.
“She didn’t score that much when I had everybody else out because it’s just impossible really to do it,” she said. “The starting team was just outstanding.”
Keri saw plenty of time herself. The next week she scored all five of the Wildcats’ goals in a shutout against Connetquot, upping her season total to 37. In the semifinals of the Class B playoffs, Keri scored the game-winning goal to break a 2-2 tie against Harborfields. The goal gave her 40 on the season and set up a showdown between the Panthers and Wildcats for the county title. But she wouldn’t score again, however, as the Panthers won 3-0. Panasci, despite suffering an ankle sprain in the playoffs that forced her to miss the team’s small school championship game against Babylon, wound up besting Keri by one goal, finishing with 41.
A few months later, when the girls saw each other again on the basketball court, Keri noticed something different about Panasci’s uniform. She had a new number.
“It was kind of like a ‘Ha ha, I got you type of thing,’ ” Keri said.
Panasci laughed at the memory.
“I think I wore 10 after that,” she said. “My number is 29 in hockey, that’s my true favorite number. In basketball I wanted to wear 10 but they didn’t have it so I figured 41 was a good choice.”
While the Panthers got the better of Shoreham in field hockey, the Wildcats had their answer in basketball and softball.
“It was kind of a cool little rivalry,” said Panasci, who went on to play field hockey at Duke. “We were each strong in all our sports, but she was definitely a better softball player. We went back-and-forth and it was a really fun rivalry.”
They shared plenty of other memorable moments together. Keri recalled a playoff win over Miller Place in basketball her senior year as one of her favorite games. Earlier that season, when the teams met in a league game, Panasci drained a 3-pointer with one second left to tie the game. Keri responded by scoring the first two baskets of overtime to lift the Wildcats to victory. Her final stat line read: 30 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists.
Their teams met twice in college, with Northeastern winning both times against Panasci’s Duke teams.
After graduating, they met for the first time outside the realm of competition when they worked at a field hockey camp together.
“I was like, ‘Wow this girl is kind of cool,’” Keri said. “We were never really friends through high school just because of the rivalry, but after everything settled down we had a mutual respect for one another.”
Keri Bettenhauser had no desire to pick up a field hockey stick after college, even if meant a shot at the U.S National team. By her senior season, she was burnt out and ready to move on.
That competitive fire, though, deep down remained. She still plays softball when away from her job as a mortgage broker. And she found a new sport in golf. She’d often visit her parents in South Carolina where they’d always hit the golf course. Her father, just as he did in the driveway with basketball years earlier, helped teach her the game.
“Softball and field hockey played a major part in me being somewhat good in golf,” she said.
Somewhat good would be a bit of an understatement. Nowadays she shoots in the high 70s or low 80s. “Thinking about it now I probably should have given her a golf club or a tennis racket,” her father said.
Ken doesn’t recall when exactly his daughter beat him for the first time in basketball. But when it comes to golf now, it happens all too often.
What is this 20 Greatest Athletes list?
No. 20 Ryan Creighton and Al Edwards