WILMINGTON – In the previous 26 years that the Town Crier has chosen a Female Athlete of the Year, only twice has the high school senior at the time gone on to play at a Division 1 collegiate program, with Melissa Mather in 1997 as she played softball at UMaine and then Olivia Wingate in 2016 as she went on and just finished up her soccer career at University of Notre Dame.
In the 26 previous years, no athlete that we have chosen has gone on to compete in track-and-field at the Division 1 level, and more impressively, no athlete that we have chosen picked up their best sports for the very first time and gone on to be selected for our award. This year's selection is also the first female to go an entire calendar year without scoring a goal or a basket.
The fact that senior Celia Kulis started track this past March and recently signed her National Letter of Intent to continue in that sport at D-1 Holy Cross, also an incredible academic institution, is truly mindblowing.
Besides breaking two school records, winning the Middlesex League Championship title in the 100-meter hurdles, while she finished fourth at the sectionals and then seventh in the entire state in the pentathlon, while helping the outdoor track to its first ever league title, not to mention being named All-Conference in Field Hockey, are a few giant reasons why Kulis is this year's choice.
Her story in joining sports is pretty interesting. Before her freshman year, Celia's mother urged her to be active and to try a sport, so she chose field hockey. After her sophomore year, the first with varsity which earned her league all-star status, Celia wanted to join the outdoor track team only to stay in shape for field hockey, but the season got cancelled due to COVID-19.
She finally got that chance during the 'Indoor Season' which was actually held outdoors, and after immediately having success, that carried over to the official outdoor season where she collected all of that hardware.
And now, the sport that she tried out for just to stay in shape for her fall sport that only her mother urged her into trying it in the first place, has led her to a D1 athletic scholarship.
"I'm very excited (about Holy Cross)," she said. "I had heard someone talk about Holy Cross so I figured that I should look into it because at that time I was still reaching out to different schools. I was talking to Stonehill at the time, and they are both Catholic Schools and smaller schools which is what I wanted. I don't like big schools. I then reached out to Holy Cross and set up my tour and the times and then the coach got back to me saying that they would like to meet with me. I went for the tour, met with the coaches and instantly I fell in love.
"I don't know if it was because of the campus, which is beautiful, but also because of academics which is huge for me. I want to be at a school that pushes my academics and I don't want to be bored. I like taking faster paced, smaller classes and that's what Holy Cross offered and those reasons I think are why I picked Holy Cross over Stonehill, plus the (track) team was just so welcoming. My host when I met her, she was the absolute best."
Kulis, who is ranked 20th in her academic class and is a National Honor Society student, said she has big plans outside of track-and-field once she gets to HC.
"I'm going to major in Psychology and I want to be a Forensic Psychologist in the FBI or some kind of law enforcement. I've always been interested in crime and figuring out why criminals did what they did and just getting inside criminals' heads. That's just been a fascination of mine," she said.
Originally, Kulis was being recruited to play field hockey in college and had interest in Bryn Mawr College, an all female school out in Pennsylvania, but the more time she spent with track-and-field, the easier the decision was not to journey out to another state.
"My parents (John and Sue) have definitely supported me the entire way," said Celia. "Joining track, I would come home with a smile on my face bigger than they probably would see from field hockey because originally I was going to commit to a college for field hockey, but then I decided not to.
"My parents were concerned that I had lost my chance to play field hockey in college, but they saw me smiling every single track meet and being with friends that I hadn't been with in a while and they are my closest friends now. Having my parents attend these things (was so important to me). I know my dad would take time off of work to come to the meets and my mom would always be here first thing with the camera and she loved taking photos of all of us."
Besides her parents, Celia also gets full support from her two siblings, Adam, 19, and Sara, a sophomore at WHS, who was on the JV Field Hockey team this past fall.
"It was a little conflicting with the age gap between the oldest and youngest," Celia said. "So with me being in the middle, I felt like I had to be the peacekeeper and that's what I have felt that I have always had to be. It was always cool having my older brother's support and then having my sister support me too. But it was two different supports at the same time. My brother was proud of me and my sister looked up to me, so I always felt real important in the family."
LET'S GIVE THIS A TRY
Going out for the track team during the abbreviated Fall-2 season, Kulis wasn't sure what to make of it. Head Coach Brian Schell figured to put her into some jumping events because she's tall and has longer legs than most. In her first meet against Burlington, she scored eight points for the 'Cats, winning the high jump, clearing 4-8 and then she took second in the 55-meter hurdles with a time of 9.7 seconds.
By the fourth meet, her hurdles time went down to 9.0 seconds, and she also added long jump to the mix, including taking first in the Watertown meet with a leap of 14-75.
"My coaches definitely push me. Coach Schell told me where to go and he thought that I would be good in the hurdles because I have long legs, so he worked with me and I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. I was afraid to even go over a hurdle but then his encouragement throughout the whole way, putting me in different events and just encouraging me throughout every single event and meet (was so great)," she said.
'Afraid' seemed to be a word Kulis used a lot when describing her first introduction to some of these events.
"Hurdles I was a little scared as my friend Kaitlyn (McLaughlin) did them and then wasn't doing them anymore," she said "I didn't know much about the event so I watched a lot of videos. I had to come on my own time if I wanted to get it down pat. The high jump I was definitely afraid of the bar. But then I got close to Kayla (Flynn) and (Assistant) Coach (Joe) Patrone and they really helped me get comfortable.
"(Throughout all of it, my success was) definitely a team effort. I always felt supported by the team. I never felt alone doing these events, although sometimes I did do hurdles alone, but everyone was always supporting me so it just made me feel so much more comfortable so it was more about me feeling like I was helping the team, rather than me doing it by myself."
That success from that 'indoor' season carried over to the outdoors. In the five regular season meets, Kulis competed in three events each time and came away with 12 first places, two seconds and a third. She won the high jump twice, won the triple jump three times, won the 55-meter hurdles once, the 100-meter hurdles three times, the long jump once and then finished with a second in the high jump and long jump and a third in the triple jump. She scored 67 points in five meets.
"(Doing so many different events) helped me versatility wise because I got to see the different aspects of each event," she said. "(When I did the) shot put (at the sectionals and state meet it) made me focus on using my legs and my arms. The high jump made me use all of my body parts to get over the bar, going backwards and using different forms. The hurdles is different than just running. You really have to focus on your form. I feel like each event had its different form aspect so they all just kind of tied into each other."
THREE WEEKS TO REMEMBER
In a matter of three-plus weeks, Kulis enjoyed a lot of track and competing and a lot of success. In the team's final regular season meet on a hot blistering day, she finished with a first place in the 100-meter hurdles (17.0), a second in the long jump (14-7) and was third in the triple jump (31-6) accounting for nine of the team's points in their win over Stoneham, which also gave the program its first ever league championship title.
A few days earlier than that, she joined Kayla Flynn and Mollie Osgood as they captured the Division 3 state relay high jump championship title with Kulis clearing 4-6.
A few days later, she competed at the Middlesex League Championship Meet. A junior at the time, all she did was set a new school record in the 100-hurdles at 15.83, while she was 8th in the triple jump (32-11.75) and 15th in the long jump (15-01). It was the hurdle event that caught so many people's eyes. Kulis was seeded second and finished second in the preliminary heat.
“My blocks were too far back so it was hard to get out of the blocks quickly, so I moved them up for the finals and that's how I got out really quick,” she said after the meet. “If your blocks are off, it's harder to get your driving phase out and it sets you back a little bit. When I pushed them up closer, my drive phase was normal so I could actually get my quick feet going.”
That little change paid off. Kulis was absolutely phenomenal in the finals, winning with her personal best and school record time of 15.83 seconds – which was 1.17 seconds better than what she had done just a few days earlier.
“I was pushing myself so hard all day and I was definitely stressing out about it during school,” she said after the win. “I was happy to (win) but I think my mom was definitely more happy about it. My family were the ones who were chanting the most. It was just a surreal moment.”
Those surreal moments also carried over the next two weekends. Due to COVID, the MIAA decided to break up the usual Eastern Mass Championship Meets into sectionals. With 14 teams in the North Section, Kulis participated in the pentathlon – all in the dreaded heat – where she finished in a tie for third place scoring 2,462 points, which was a big boost to the team's fourth place finish. In the pentathlon, she was first in the high jump (5-0), second in the 100-meter hurdles (15.61), fourth in the long jump (15-4), seventh in the shot put (25-2) and 11th in the 800 (3:11.01).
"Sectionals was a very hot day and I don't do well in the heat and clearly you can see that in my 800 (meter run) but I fixed that (the following week)," she said. "I had never done that event before. It was really encouraging when I got my personal record in the high jump and the hurdles, especially going against Kaitlyn (Gorgenyi) from North Reading, who is just really good."
A week later, she would compete again in the pentathlon but this time against the rest of the state's best at the All-State Meet. She came into the meet ranked 15th and left finishing as the seventh best in the state. She finished with 2,647 points which re-broke her own school record, and that included finishing fourth in the 100-meter hurdles, seventh in the shot put and tied for eighth in the high jump (4-9.50).
“Celia continued to show the versatility that I have praised all season. She had a great start to the meet in the hurdles having a better time than her previous one in the sectionals. While she was just off missing her best high jump, she was still in great contention after these two events,” said Schell after the meet.
Going into the 800, Kulis was in ninth place, and after her 3:11 time from a week earlier, it appeared as if maybe she would slide down a few spots. Not so much.
“I walked her through it and made sure she listened this time and didn't sprint from the start (like she did the week before),” said Schell, also after that race was completed. “She started from last place and gradually picked up her pace every 100-meters. She eventually outkicked both the Natick and Lynnfield girls in the last 150-meters which in the end gave her those last few points to surpass them and gain her a medal.”
Kulis finished 11th in the 800 at 2:51.75, which was a 20 second improvement from her last place finish of 3:11.01 from the sectionals.
"(Finishing seventh in the pentathlon at the All-State Meet) was never a big deal to me. My parents always support me and they were making big deals out of it, but I guess it just meant that I put in all of the work. I would come by myself (to the high school) to practice because I just wanted to improve and improve some more. I did track just to keep in shape for field hockey, but then I ended up liking it a lot more.
"That day was a lot, especially because it was hot and you couldn't find any shade. They gave you thirty minutes inbetween each event, but it really wasn't by the time (you cooled down) and then started warming up for (the next event)."
She finished with a personal best time of 15.45 seconds in the hurdles, which was significantly better than her 17.0 time from her first meet.
STICKING IT OUT
After playing on the JV Field Hockey team as a freshman, Kulis made the jump to varsity, played the defensive center-midfield spot and immediately made an impact. She was named a league all-star and the Wildcats just missed out on making it to the state tournament by one point.
After last year's abbreviated COVID-19 season, Kulis was back for this year's senior season. The entire team, with the exception of two players, were all seniors, but many of them were first time players. No one had an idea of what to expect.
"We weren't supposed to be good. We were a whole new team mostly of all seniors and we were not clicking in the first few games. It just came to a point where we all just jelled and everyone found out their position and where they needed to be. We just all worked on that and worked on communication more as a team. Then we just jelled and started winning. Alot of us changed a ton of positions and she found what best suited each one of us and then we just all got much more comfortable as a team," she said.
Kulis didn't score any goals but was clearly the team's best player with her skillset – tremendous speed, endurance and stickhandling skills.
She helped lead the 'Cats to the Division 3 state tournament, which included a first round loss to Bishop Stang. After the season was completed, she was named to the Middlesex League All-Conference team.
“Celia may not have the stats that others have, but she definitely makes things happen — sets up plays, goals, is a strong presence defensively,” said head coach Leanne Ebert. “She played every position with the exception of goalie this year and that is because she gives it her all no matter where she is and I needed that (as a coach), especially this year.
“(Other) coaches would approach me after games and ask me where she’d be playing next year. I’d tell them that she’ll be be continuing her athletic career, but it would be in track. In field hockey, Celia definitely stood out during games.”