After Close Calls, Chelsea Claims Title

June 1, 2013

By Greg Chrapek
Special to Second Half

ADA – This spring’s high school sports season long will be remembered for having some of the worst weather in years.

While the wet and cold weather hampered many teams across the state, the Chelsea boys track team used it to its advantage. And the payoff was an MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 track and field championship Saturday afternoon at Forest Hills Eastern.

After coming close the past two years, the Bulldogs came away with this year’s title as they totaled 64 points to edge second-place Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills by eight points.

Chelsea finished second two years ago, and last year the Bulldogs placed third. This year, thanks to some hard training when the weather was at its worst in the spring, Chelsea had what it took to bring home the title hardware.

“Back in March and April when the weather was bad and everyone was complaining about how bad the weather was, we talked about just concentrating and working harder,” Chelsea coach Eric Swager said. “Rain, sleet or snow everyone was out there working their hardest, and it paid off. … Everyone just worked that much harder when the weather was bad.”

The hard work resulted in Chelsea having a deep team capable of scoring points in a variety of events.

“Everybody contributed,” Swager said. “The sprints, the relays, the distance runners, field events. The entire team has been focused and working hard from day one. We have some individual talent, but everybody stuck together and that was the key.”

Berkley Edwards was one of the individual talents that helped pave the way for the Bulldogs. One of the state’s top sprinters, Edwards wrapped up his high school track career by winning both the 100 and the 200-meter dashes.

Edwards turned in a time of 10.58 in the 100-meter dash and then came back to edge Gary Jones of Allegan in a 200-meter dash that came down to the end. Edwards finished with a time of 21.37.

“Things went well for me today, better than expected,” Edwards said. “I ran a 10.58 which was a p.r. (personal record) in the 100, and then I ran a 21.37 which was a p.r. in the 200.”

The highlight for Edwards was holding on to win the 200.

“It was definitely a photo finish,” Edwards said. “It was a real close race. My strategy was to get out to the lead and hold it on the curve. I heard him (Jones) coming. I didn’t want to stress. I just stay relaxed.”

Sweeping both the 100 and 200 was a major key to Chelsea’s title and part of the strategy going into the Finals.

“My coaches told me I had an opportunity to win two races,” Edwards said. “They thought I could get the 100 and possibly the 200, and if I did we had a real good chance of winning.”

The Bulldogs also picked up points in the field events as senior Michael Hovater won the pole vault by clearing 14 feet, 10 inches. Chelsea also won the 3,200-meter relay as the team of Zach Rabbitt, Jacob Stubbs, David Trimas and Tony Vermilye turned in a time of 7:55.84.

Chelsea was pushed for the title by an Ottawa Hills team that had one of its best Finals performances in recent history. Key to Ottawa Hills’ strong effort was the performances turned in by its sprint relay teams.

Ottawa Hills finished in the top three of three of the four relay events, led by the first-place 400-meter relay team of Shawn Kneeland, Sam Beal, Jacori Millbrooks and Teyland Avery.

The relay was seeded second coming into the day but came away with the school’s first title-winning effort at the Finals since 1997.

“This was real big,” Kneeland said. “The key for us was to focus. Not to worry about anyone else and just focus on running our best.”

Senior Teyland Avery ran the anchor leg for the Bengals.

“To win a state title in Grand Rapids was real special,” Avery said. “We had two seniors on the relay team, and to finally win a title is special. Last year we finished third at state and we didn’t do too well. This just feels great. To run in my city and to win in my city is pretty special.”

For Detroit East English senior Marcell Wyckoff and the rest of his teammates, Saturday’s Finals were the first in school history as East English is in its first year as a high school. Wykoff, who came in seeded second, won the 400-meter dash.

“The first thing I wanted to do was to get out fast,” Wykoff said. “I knew if I got out to a good start, nobody would catch me. I had a pretty good start, and I held on.”

Wykoff’s title was the first in school history and was a little bittersweet for the senior.

“I came over from Crockett Tech,” Wykoff said. “This year was really different. It was not like I thought my senior year would be, but it ended up pretty good winning a state championship. It feels good on the inside.”

Mason senior distance runner Tanner Hinkle ended a few years of frustration both on the track and during cross country season. He won the 3,200 by more than four seconds with a time of 9:13.41.

“I have finished second two different times at state,” Hinkle said. “Winning it my senior year feels real good, to finally win a state title. I also finished second at state during the cross country season. I’ve been very close to a state title a few times before, and to finally win one is a dream come true.”

In the field events, Cadillac senior Riley Norman closed out a successful high school throwing career by winning the shot put for a second consecutive season. He turned in a winning put of 59-10, missing a Finals record by less than two feet.

“I won it last year with a 61-2 ½ and this year I had a p.r. of 62-10,” Norman said. “I wanted to set a new record, but I came up a little short.”

Click for full results.         

PHOTOS: (Top) Chelsea's Berkley Edwards races toward the finish line on the way to winning one of his two MHSAA titles Saturday. (Middle) Mason's Tanner Hinkle sets the pace in the 3,200. (Photos by Greg Chrapek.)

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for

April 10, 2024

Bob Branch remembers dabbling in other sports, but his first love was always running.

Mid-MichiganThe Hastings High School graduate admits he could never hit a baseball, football didn't especially appeal to him and basketball was just another way to spend time with friends. But for Branch, now 93, there was always track. That's the sport where his fondest and sharpest memories remain. And if you're talking track, many of his favorite memories come from participation in the state's oldest continuous track meet, the Hastings Relays.

Always held in early April, the meet dates back to 1937 – a bygone time that saw the first hostilities of World War II, gas at 20 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread selling for a dime.

And at a dusty old track surrounding the county fairgrounds in Hastings, a small relay event that included a scattering of participants from a dozen high schools was taking its first tentative steps.

Branch recalls a time when kids would run home after track practice because there were no buses, inexperienced young coaches had little actual knowledge of running fundamentals, and athletes looked at the sport as an afterthought after spending most of their high school days playing football and basketball.

The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago.For Branch, the relays were the ideal way to ease into the track season.

"I just liked to run," said Branch. "I remember I anchored a relay with my brother, and it always seemed cold when we had that meet. I remember teams would come from all over and you saw a lot of good athletes. Everybody seemed to have someone who was really good. Track wasn't very popular at that time, but I have a lot of good memories from running."

The Hastings Relays, which has changed formats and even names during its nearly nine-decade history, would traditionally kick off the track season. The meet was originally held at a makeshift quarter-mile track which surrounded the town's fairgrounds and was part of the city's annual Hastings Carnival – the track would become the midway during fair time.

The meet eventually moved to Johnson Field when the football field was dedicated in 1949 and ballooned to as many as 50 teams at its peak in 1957. For more than seven decades it was known as the Hastings Relays and then the Hastings Co-Ed relays before becoming the current Hastings Invitational, with the latest edition scheduled for Friday.

Johnson Field had a cinder track before it became an all-weather surface in the 1980s. During a time long before computers would be used to organize meet heats in mere minutes, Hastings coaches of all sports – defined as "volunteers" by the athletic department – would meet on the Friday before competition to hash out events.

People associated with the meet still recall the camaraderie built on those long Friday nights, followed by working what would often become 10-hour meets. Steve Hoke has been involved since watching his father, Jack, who coached teams at 15 of the meets beginning in 1951 and also had run in the first Hastings Relays. Steve Hoke later competed in the Relays as well during the early 1970s before becoming an assistant track coach, later the Hastings athletic director and now a volunteer worker.

"It was always a huge deal," said Hoke, who said the meet began as a pure relay event before transitioning to its current team format in the 1990s. "I remember we'd line the track the night before, and all the coaches would come to the house to organize everything. There was a brotherhood.”

Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s.If you quiz many of the fleet of volunteers who've worked the relays over the years, each has a different memory from the meet. While Hoke describes the brotherhood and Branch the outstanding competition, others remember weather and the time a thunderstorm wiped out the line markings on the cinder track, or waking up to find three inches of snow that caused a rare cancellation of the meet. Others recall the shock of moving from the cinder to all-weather track or using the meet as an early measuring stick of what it would take to qualify for the state meet. The real old-timers remember the meet disappearing for three years during World War II.

Hastings native and Western Michigan grad Tom Duits was the state’s second collegian to break the four-minute mile when he ran a 3:59.2 at a meet in Philadelphia in 1978. Duits, who ran in three Hastings Relays, was in line to join the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 before the United States pulled out of the games due to tension with Russia.

Duits has his own memories of the meet and the competition he faced there.

"I remember sunshine and being excited to be competing again. There were all these athletes swarming around; it was an awesome display of talent," he said. "It was always one of the best meets we'd be in. You could pretty much see the level of runners who would be at state, which made it a big deal. It was always early, but you could tell where you stood. It was great exposure."

Hastings track star Wayne Oom competed in four Hastings Relays from 1984-87. One of his sharpest memories was the difference between running on a raw cinder track versus the far more comfortable all-weather surface.

"Those cinders would grind into your skin," said Oom, part of the Hastings school record in the two-mile relay. "But I think it helped us because when we'd go to other tracks, it seemed we would run faster. I remember how competitive it was, especially in the distances. There were some great runners."

While participants have their unique memories, so do coaches. Former Saxons coach Paul Fulmer remembers 2008 when his team finished first on the boys side of the meet while his wife, Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, saw her girls team win the championship.

Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays."I knew we were one of the favorites to win because we were usually near the top of our conference and Regional," he said. "But then Katie's team was pretty good, and it was cool for them to win too."

Fulmer, who coached Hastings from 1978-81 and then 1985-2010, said at least part of the meet's popularity was derived from a unique way of scoring. Instead of individuals earning points solo, participants worked in pairs. For instance, two athletes would combine their shot put or long jump scores. New events such as the 1,500 relay and sprint medley were added.

"We had a tradition of being the state's oldest meet, and that was a big deal," Fulmer said. "And we ran a good relay; that attracted teams too. We took a lot of pride in that.

"And we'd get quite a lot of people to come to the meet. We'd set up until like 9 or 10 p.m., and then we'd have a party with all the coaches on Friday night."

While the meet has stretched 87 years, Branch said early participants and current runners have one thing in common: a drive to win. Branch ran in an era when the popularity of high school track was in its infancy. Today some of the best all-around athletes at a school are involved in the track program. The relays span the nearly nine decades in between.

"The quality of teams has gotten better and better," said Branch, the 1947 Lower Peninsula Class B Finals champ in the 220. "And this has made for a better meet. We would get guys who played football or baseball kind of drift into track, and that made the sport better. I think people began to appreciate track because we'd get teams from all over.

"We went from not really knowing what we were doing to track being a good sport. Even then, I'm not sure we appreciated what we had. We really liked the Hastings Relays and always wanted to do well there. It became popular and quite an honor to do well. Those are the kind of things I remember."

PHOTOS (Top) Racers run at the Hastings Relays, with several more awaiting their turns to compete at the longtime meet. (2) The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago. (3) Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s. (4) Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays. (Top photo by Dan Goggins, Hoke photo provided by Steve Hoke and Duits photos provided by Tom Duits.)