WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
1988 Leopard graduate
excelled in volleyball,
basketball and softball
BY TONY CASTRO
Tracy Michelle Bridges will never be confused with a wallflower.
Bridges, 47, was born in Leesburg as the oldest of three daughters (her sister Kim Bridges graduated in 1991 while Dena graduated in 1992 from HHS) to insurance agent Roy Bridges and paralegal Michelle Seligsohn.
The Bridges’ family relocated to Brooksville when Tracy was in fifth grade. She and her sisters were raised primarily by her father and were extremely competitive whether it was neighborhood kickball or just riding bikes. That competitive nature would continue to serve Bridges well.
She attended Mitchell Black Elementary for one year before matriculating to Parrott Middle School, where she began a love affair of athletics playing volleyball and basketball.
When she arrived on the Bell Avenue campus of Hernando High, she was a fixture.
In an era where student/athletes simply changed jerseys with each passing season, so did the gifted 5-foot-10 athlete.
The current brown-tressed with blonde highlights Bridges lettered in volleyball for three seasons under Pat King, played basketball for four seasons under former Athletic Director J.D. Caldwell and Walt Cermak and was a member of four of the last slow-pitch softball teams at HHS under Tom Varn and Cermak.
How instrumental was the blue-eyed Bridges in a Leopard uniform,?
Was it just a coincidence that the first HHS female state championship team in softball featured Bridges as an infielder on the undefeated squad in 1986 and basketball in the Final Four 1988? Hardly.
The talented outside hitter in volleyball, power forward/center, who played point guard as a senior and infielder was named All-Gulf Coast Athletic Conference in all three sports
As a senior in 1987-88, she was voted Most Outstanding Female Athlete by her peers in school.
Besides making All-State in volleyball, she was selected Florida’s Co-Athlete of the Year in Class 3A alongside 6-foot-2 Zephyrhills center and netter Jeanine “The Dream” Boyd as a senior.
After graduating from HHS in 1988, Bridges played two seasons of junior college ball for the Central Florida Community College Patriots before transferring to Division-I hoops at East Tennessee State University.
She earned her bachelor‘s and master’s in criminal justice and criminology on the Johnson City campus.
Next, she married and settled down in Oklahoma City, got divorced and relocated to Sunshine State in Lakeland.
Tracy is currently employed by Heartland for Children based in Polk County. Her duties include working with children and families to strengthen them in the communities they live.
She’s worked with juvenile male sex offenders for 10 years. She’s worked in child welfare and juvenile justice for the past 22 years.
Tracy, who married Mark Grey in 2013, has been in fight against human trafficking and serves on the Polk County Human Trafficking Task Force. She also serves on the State of Florida Child Welfare Ethics Review Committee.
Tracy’s daughter, Bailee Wolfe, from her first marriage, followed in her mom’s footsteps and signed D-I with the University of Alabama at Birmingham in basketball after graduating from Lakeland’s George Jenkins High School. Bailee has since transferred to D-II Auburn University at Montgomery.
As a result of her extensive resume, Tracy Bridges-Grey, was inducted into the HHS Athletic Hall of Fame Class of 2017.
This year’s eight members feature: Bridges, Tara Allen, Mike Hamilton, Mac Johnson, Allan Leavitt, Kimi Olmstead-O’Connell, Mike Revell and Andrew Williams.
During the Sept. 15 home football game at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium against Lecanto, seven new members (Leavitt will not be present), along with the 1967 HHS Baseball Team and first recipient of Ernie Chatman Legacy Award, Tom Bronson Sr., will also be feted.
Upon hearing the induction news, “It brought tears to my ears,” explained Bridges, who currently resides in Lakeland. “That’s where my roots are. To be selected and inducted with a group of athletes as great as this is phenomenal. It’s really a big honor.”
On retracing her Brooksville days, “My high school days were memorable. It seems like yesterday,” grinned Bridges. “The biggest thing was Hernando High taught me to be competitive and how to win. I was truly blessed to be on so many great teams while I was there.”
Bridges went into details on why she was surrounded by so many other successful players, “Back then there weren’t as many schools as there are now. So it was much more competitive,“ she offered. “Plus, the school spirit and support was great. Our principal (Elaine Sullivan) never missed a game. She was so encouraging.
“Our athletic director (Ernie Chatman, who replaced Caldwell) was always involved and was so encouraging with the athletes,” added Bridges. “Game day was a big deal on campus. There were times we filled the (old middle school gymnasium that has since been torn down) gym.
“People still attend games, but we had people standing in the aisles during our sectional basketball game. The gym was packed … it was a different time.”
Lending hand from her coaches
Bridges was acutely aware that she was mentored in an environment fostering some of the best-ever coaches from that generation including Hall of Famers: Varn, Cermak and even Chatman.
“I would say so much of the focus from my coaches was from teaching fundamentals in both basketball and softball. They’d build on those fundamentals which attributed to my success down the line.
On “Professor” Cermak, who preferred to win every basketball game 2-0 if he could, Bridges selected him to introduce her at the HOF banquet.
“What Cermak stressed probably more than anything else was we didn’t cut corners on drills or anything else. On line drills, you ran and touched each line every time; no joke. As a result, when we stepped on the court we all knew it was time to be serious,” revealed Bridges.
“I was fortunate to play with a lot of my friends, like Kristi Poore, Lori Pingley, Jody Harville, Veronica Vasquez. Coach Cermak was tough on all of us. I’ve told him this since, when I got to college that’s when I realized that all those fundamentals helped me get to there.”
In describing Cermak as a coach, “We constantly did drills, especially one where we took charges. I was never afraid of taking a charge. When I got to college, that’s when I found out a lot of girls didn’t like the contact.
“In softball, I had Varn and Cermak. They both taught us how to slide. That taught us how to be tough, strawberries, bruises and all,” admitted Bridges. “Above all, your character would come out during those drills.
“I also have to applaud Mrs. Sullivan and Coach Chatman for creating an environment that supported girls sports,” added Bridges. “That’s not always the case at a lot of schools.”
So many wins under her belt, Bridges found it difficult to narrow down her greatest athletic memories at HHS.
“It had to be the sectional (basketball) game. The gym was packed. I remember we scored the first basket of the game, and student section, which carried rolls and rolls of toilet paper, heaved it on the court,” grinned Bridges. “The game was stopped as the head ref gave Coach Cermak a warning. The next time, he warned would result in a technical foul.
“Coach (Cermak) walked out to mid-court and with his hands at his hips and said to the student section, “That‘s enough” and walked back. We ended up winning the game and going to the Final Four for the first time in school‘s basketball history,” shared Bridges.
“I‘ll never forget the state semifinal. We lost to Ribault by one point. I fouled out late in the game. The game was close the entire time. I remember Ribault’s best player signing with University of Florida. That was a heck of game.”
“… Probably the next biggest memory was being a part of our undefeated (slow-pitch) softball team that won states,” detailed Bridges. “That’s something that’s pretty special and I’ll never forget.”
The decision to go to college after graduation from HHS wasn’t as strenuous as it was picking a single sport to play in college.
Eventually, she picked Central Florida Community College, which served as a stepping stone to D-I hoops.
“I ultimately chose basketball because I loved the physicality of the game,” smiled Bridges. “My recruiting visit to East Tennessee State University was awesome. To this day, I’m still friends with many of my teammates and stay in tough with my coach.
“We had two .500 seasons at ETSU, but I don’t regret a minute about the experience,” insisted Bridges. “I was fortunate. How many people get to start every game they ever played in college? And I was able to have an immediate impact on my team.
“The experiences I received at Central Florida and ETSU were amazing,” added Bridges. “All the traveling and treatment of our team wherever we went just gave you a great feeling of representing something big.
“The friendships you develop in college have lasted forever. Just playing at the D-I level competition-wise was pretty cool.”
After earning her bachelor’s Bridges remained on campus as a graduate assistant coach working with the athletic department.
After receiving her master’s, she got engaged to a former Oklahoma State Cowboy football player and relocated to Oklahoma City.
A year later, Bailee was born.
Tracy began working in an Oklahoma Boys Group Home for sex offenders. In a male-dominated profession, she dealt mostly with gang bangers from underprivileged neighborhoods.
One of things the gang bangers understood was the game of basketball.
To prove a point, Bridges would play full-court games against the guys. Slowly but surely, that’s how earned their respect because he had mad ball skills developed from Brooksville.
“It’s funny but basketball is how I earned those kids’ respect. I was looked at as an athlete. I was someone who was competitive and could get elbowed and knocked down and still get back up and play. In turn, the men that I worked with took notice, too,” added Bridges. “After six months, I was promoted to supervisor.”
In 1999, Tracy’s family barely survived a F5 tornado that leveled most of Oklahoma City.
Tracy’s home, along with her press clippings, yearbooks and mementos from high school vanished and she was forced to start from scratch.
After relocating back to Polk County, she’s been with Heartland for Children since 2004.
“There’s a certain gratification in helping children and families. We oversee foster care, adoption and independent living in Polk, Highlands and Hardee Counties,” emphasized Bridges.
Though she admits she has not penned her acceptance speech, she shared a preview, “This generation of athletes should not lose sight of hard work, determination and what it means to be part of a team,” stressed Bridges.
“I have to definitely thank my coaches and my principal. I played three sports, so I went day-to-day-to-day from practice to games, to games and practice,” shared Bridges. “That experience shaped my life on what it’s like to win.
“… I also have to thank the Brooksville community that embraces its sports.”
2017 HHS ATHLETIC HOF