By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
Daniel Steele became a star in the fifth grade when he played a star in his class’ Christmas production.
Ever since, he’s fed off that adrenaline rush each time the curtain has gone up.
He’s played Rooster in “Annie Jr.” and the White Rabbit in “Alice In Wonderland.” Steele greedily gobbled goodies as Augustus in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He was cowman Slim in “Oklahoma” and eventually landed lead roles of Mr. McAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie” and Mr. Browning in “Leaving Iowa” before his most demanding performance as Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Steele said at an early age he was comfortable at the center of attention, which is where he first experienced the joy of putting in work for the payoff of a laugh – and where he learned the importance of precise delivery and timing.
“I feel like I’ve always been a lively person,” the Sturgis High School senior said. “Singing and music have always been a part of my life. It’s something I really love doing.”
One day Steele, who also knows his way around the guitar and clarinet when he’s not leading the Sturgis High School marching band as drum major, hopes to earn a living in entertainment. Most folks, however, know Steele for his rapid ascent in the world of Michigan high school distance running.
That is one of Steele’s talents that materialized his freshman year when he made a decision to be good rather than coast on natural ability.
Believe it or not, Steele said he’s far more nervous stepping up to the starting line at a big meet than delivering a monologue or singing a solo in front of a packed house.
Last season, Steele flirted with a sub-16-minute time for the first half of the season leading up to the Jackson Invitational. He was determined that would be the race where he’d finally break through. He ran a 15:59.5.
“That was one of the biggest things for me as a runner,” he said. “That had been such a big goal for such a long time. That was huge. Achieving something like that kind of opened my eyes like, ‘Hey, if I can do that, I can probably do more.’ It’s going to hurt, but I can do this.”
Steele, last year’s Wolverine Conference champion who is considering running cross country and track at Grand Valley State University, has set the highest of goals for his final season. He’s gone on record saying he will leave Sturgis as the school-record holder, and his aim is to go undefeated.
Keith Keyser, a big supporter of Sturgis athletics, holds the program’s fastest time of 15:36. Before Steele’s third-place finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals last year, the best performance by a Sturgis runner at an MHSAA championship race was Keyser’s fifth-place performance in 1981.
“He will be working on his racing technique this year to attack those goals,” Sturgis coach Emerson Green said. “Time improvements are nice, but since cross country times are not linear due to weather, course, competition, etc., he will need to be able to adjust his race strategy based on what the competition yields.”
That’s something Steele learned the hard way this past March, when he disregarded his targeted first-lap split in the 800-meter MHSAA Final and dropped from first to eighth place on the second lap.
Pushing his body to the red line too early cost him. Though the experience taught him to implement more method rather than relying solely on guts, old habits are hard to break.
“I can’t feel too bad about it because I really did give it everything I had,” Steele said. “I learned my body is only capable of so much. I want to push myself to the limit, but running is tricky.
“It’s not always consistent and you can’t always go out and give it everything you have and have it work out. The last 200 meters of the race, it was kind of like muscle failure. Everything was falling apart and nothing was working. But I still remember pushing through all of that.”
Green, a chemistry teacher at Sturgis, hopes he can convince Steele that winning races isn’t always about who has the biggest heart.
Steele credits the guidance he’s received from Green, a former college runner at Alma and a 21-year head coach for the Trojans, for helping him grasp the importance of thinking his way through a race and through life.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Green for how he carries himself as an adult and how he’s helped all of us on the team,” Steele said. “He’s an all-around great guy and really knows what he’s doing. Personally, he’s helped me a ton with his wisdom. Having the experience that he does … and that he’s very personable, it’s easy for me to listen to him and put to good use everything he has to say.”
Every leading man can benefit from a competent supporting actor, and Steele is now being truly pushed in race situations by classmate Shawn Bell, who was 14th at Michigan International Speedway last fall with a time of 16:11.4.
The two finished 1-2 at the St. Joseph Invitational late last month in their only race of the year so far. Steele clocked a 16:25, and Bell crossed the line in 16:29.
“Last year I was kind of training by myself,” Steele said. “I was out in front of the pack in workouts, and in most races I was the frontrunner. Even at the state meet I was pretty much by myself because it was so spread out.
“This year I feel like Shawn has really played a part in the sense that he’s a lot faster now than he was his junior year. He’s made a lot of good steps mentally. He’s a very talented kid; we’ve seen that since middle school. Now he’s really putting in the work and now he’s right up there with me. We’ve been pushing each other like crazy.”
When the cross country season is over, Steele will begin winter workouts for track. Sometimes he uses those hours running around Sturgis to recite lines for the winter musical.
If anyone sees him darting down a sidewalk apparently in mid-conversation, he wants people to know he’s not talking to himself; he’s simply working through a scene.
See below for a video piece on Steele by JoeInsider.com.
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sturgis' Daniel Steele surges past the crowd during his MHSAA Regional race last season. (Middle) Steele rounds the curve at Michigan International Speedway on the way to finishing third in the LP Division 2 Final. (Photos courtesy of the Steele family.)