Amid Life's Hurdles, Mendon Sprinter Rises
April 11, 2018
By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
Sam Cleveland remembers a day back in elementary school, or at least parts of it, that changed his life forever.
He recalled feeling lightheaded, seeing a fuzzy image of the floor before passing out. After regaining consciousness, he was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Now a junior three-sport athlete at Mendon High School, Cleveland was diagnosed with severe hypoglycemia, a condition caused by a low level of blood sugar (glucose), which is the body’s primary energy source. Since then, he has been on a strict diet that requires many meals a day.
Despite the health concern, Cleveland has been able to navigate a twisting path through life, academics and athletics. Without going into detail, his coaches noted how Cleveland had been able to remain focused in the face of a challenging home life as a youngster.
Now he lives with his grandmother, who is battling cancer and relies heavily on the support Cleveland provides. Through all of this, Cleveland has been an integral component to the success of both the Mendon football and wrestling teams. The Hornets advanced to the MHSAA Division 8 Semifinals in football, and the grapplers followed that up this past winter with a trip to the Division 4 Quarterfinals after claiming their first Regional crown in nearly three decades.
Cleveland’s role in football was mostly on special teams, where he returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in one game. He missed the majority of his sophomore season in 2016 with a broken fibula. On a power-packed wrestling team, Cleveland filled the 152-pound spot when one of the Hornets’ top performers, Kaden Frye, missed a good chunk of the season recovering from a severe leg fracture.
“I’m not very good at it at all,” Cleveland said, noting his still-solid 11-12 record on the mat. “This year I wasn’t going to wrestle. I had a lot of stuff going on personally. It wasn’t appealing at all to me because the year before that I had a really bad year. But I’ve realized wrestling is one of those things that keeps me going. It’s the pinnacle of my athletic ability because of how hard we go. There’s no other practice like wrestling practice.
“I can’t cut weight, or I will die. I have to eat like eight times a day on a schedule. It’s a struggle to wrestle, but I do it anyway because I love my coach and the kids on that team. There’s nothing like that atmosphere. Here at Mendon, wrestling and football are the hardest things you’ll do. We try our best and put everything on the line.”
That Cleveland decided to return for another year of wrestling didn’t surprise coach Caleb Stephenson, who said the student-athlete has accepted a number of challenges he didn’t necessarily ask for in life.
“A kid like Sam is exactly what you think about when you think about small-town sports,” Stephenson said. “He’s so crucial. You’ve got to have these guys that are three-sport athletes. He’s going to give you everything he’s got every single day, and you just love kids like that.
“He’s had to deal with so much more than he ever told you. He’s had a rough upbringing and has had to deal with some things kids shouldn’t have to deal with at such a young age. Without Sam this year, we wouldn’t have been the wrestling team we were. When Kaden got hurt, Sam stepped up. That’s the way he’s grown up. He’s had to; he’s had no choice.”
On the track is where Cleveland’s confidence noticeably comes alive. As a freshman, he qualified for the Division 4 Finals in the 100 meters. Last season, he secured the final (eighth) all-state spot in the event with a time of 11.5 seconds, along with a seventh-place performance with the Mendon 800 relay team and an 11th-place finish with the 400 relay. Cleveland also qualified for the Finals in the long jump.
“He’s a tough kid,” Mendon track coach Vic Wilczynski said. “This might be one of the first years he has started out not hurt. He’s a good leader and is out there working with the younger guys. Not many guys have qualified as a freshman in the 100 (from Mendon), and he followed that up with all-state. You look up at that (program) record board, and there aren’t that many guys up there in the 100, period.”
He may not headline the football and wrestling rosters, but the spring is when Cleveland has a chance to shine.
“I’m pretty psyched about the 100,” Cleveland said as the 2018 track season gets going. “It was never really my thing. In middle school I used to run the 800 and the 400. I never thought of myself as a sprinter, to be honest.
“Track season is the most important season to me. It keeps me in the best shape and is something I thrive at. I strive to be better every day.”
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@example.com with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTO: Mendon’s Sam Cleveland charges forward during a 100-meter preliminary at last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals at Houseman Field. Evart’s Major Griffin is to his left, and Wyoming Potter’s House Christian’s Shelton Rodriguez is to his right. (Photo courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)
Aspirations High as Reigning Champion Hackett Vaults Into New Season
By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com
March 14, 2023
KALAMAZOO — Harrison Wheeler has not been a pole vaulter for very long – two weeks to be exact – but he already has some lofty goals.
The sophomore is aiming for the Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep record board and, if he makes it, he will be in good company.
Coach Shelly (Martin) Germinder, a 2001 Hackett graduate, still holds the girls record of 10 feet, 2½ inches.
“I’m hoping to have my name next to hers (on the record board),” Wheeler said.
The sophomore has a few feet to go before surpassing current record holder Brian Kucinich, who vaulted 12 feet, 6 inches in 1992.
Wheeler’s unofficial best is 9 feet; officially it is 8 feet, 6 inches.
“That is going to be a very big jump in my pole vaulting career,” he said.
Wheeler is one of 42 athletes on the reigning MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 champion boys team, which includes 12 seniors and 13 juniors. Besides Wheeler, the team has six sophomores and 10 freshmen.
One of the returners is senior Liam Mann, who helped lead the Irish to the Finals title last year.
Mann, Andrew Finley, Evan Wurtz and Isaac Backman won the 800-meter relay with a time of 1:31.55 last season, setting a school record as well.
While he lost his relay mates, Mann said there are good runners to replace them.
“(Senior) Brice Brown is coming out to do track, and I’ve been working with him this winter,” Mann said. “Jude Coffman, who is a sophomore, is coming out this year. I think he’s going to be a good addition to our 4-by-1.
“(Junior) Gabe Oeurn, last year he was running solid times, but this year he’s been putting in the work and I think he’ll be able to break that 12-second barrier.”
Mann, who will attend Ashland (Ohio) University on a track scholarship in the fall, also added gold in the 200-meter dash (22.82) last season.
“Last year, I played basketball and was able to lift to keep in shape,” he said. “This year, I wanted to focus all my time on track, so I’ve been doing indoor track, practicing once a week and going to meets on weekends.”
He continued to put his skills on display as a running back during football season with Kalamazoo United, ending the fall with 1,413 rushing yards on 177 carries and 267 receiving yards on 10 catches.
Opportunities & possibilities
The biggest group of competitors impacted by graduation are the sprinters, coach Charissa Dean said.
“Hackett’s been really big on sprinting talent in general,” she said. “But track has 17 events, and only two of them are open sprint events and two are relays.
“The other 13 are wide open for possibilities, and there’s a lot of younger talent that’s coming back this year. While they didn’t go to the state meet, they are the next generation of athletes coming up.”
Among that next generation are freshmen Marek Butkiewicz and Sean Siems, who “are incredibly talented athletes,” Dean said.
“(Junior) Gavin Sehy figured out how to do the distance thing this year in cross country.”
Sehy said he wanted to run track, but wasn’t sure where he fit.
“I thought I was mid-distance when I was younger, but my dad forced me to do cross country my sixth-grade year and it turned out I was decent at it so I kept doing (long distance) in track,” he said.
“It’s kind of brutal at times to train for long distance, mentally and physically, because you have to go on long runs, but I have fun with it. At the cross country state finals, I hit an 11 flat split at the two-mile, which beat my 3,200 best from last season, so we have yet to see my best times.”
Butkiewicz and Sehy have been running consistently six days a week all winter to prepare for their first meet, March 22.
“I’ve never done track,” the freshman said. “I know I can perform well. I know my times compared to other people.”
A sophomore this year, Alex Dumont had a 400-meter time that “came out of nowhere,” Dean said. “Toward the end of the season we recruited him to do the 4x8, so an 800-meter runner. That kid came through.
‘We actually took him to the state meet in the 4x8. He did the lead leg, and I clocked him at a 2:07. He was sprinting. It was an amazing leg in that relay.”
It was Germinder who converted Wheeler to the pole vault last year.
“Harrison’s a strong athlete, and just the way his mind works in that he asks questions and he wants to learn and he wants to improve,” she said.
“He wants to work hard, and he wants to put in the time. That’s something you need for that, along with the athletic component.”
Wheeler, who said he was shocked at being successful right away, competed for two weeks last season before a foot injury suffered on a vault sidelined him.
“It took her a whole season to finally convince me to do it,” he said. “I grabbed a pole one day and ended up being really good at it. Ever since, I’ve had a love of it.
“The feeling I have once I get in the air is almost like I’m just floating. When you get really good vaults and you get that nice height and good form, you get what we call a ‘stall.’ You just feel like you’re sitting up in the air for a second. It’s gotta be the coolest thing ever.”
Germinder has the background to help the Irish vaulters.
While at Hackett, she competed in the AAU National Championships and said she learned from the best, Oran Mitchell, a noted pole vaulting coach.
Her own coaching style revolves around the safety of the athletes.
“You can teach a lot of people to grab hold of a pole and pop yourself over,” she said. “But I want to make sure my athletes are safe. That’s really, really important to me, and that’s something that was instilled in me.
“When you’re jumping 6 to 16 feet, that’s a long way to fall. Safety is very important to me. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then I’m not the coach for you.”
Germinder said one of the foundations on which the team is built is leadership, which was instilled in the younger athletes by last year’s seniors.
“That’s one of the things our program is built on,” she said. “If you’re there because you want to get ready for the next sports season, we’ll coach you for that.
“If you want to be a state champion, we’ll coach you for that. That’s the really unique thing about track. There’s something for everyone, whatever that might be.”
As for the girls team, numbers are steadily climbing.
Five years ago, the team had just two girls. This year, 25 girls are on the team.
No matter girls or boys, track or field events, one thing is common for all the athletes.
“We pray before every meet, we put God first, and all those pieces have fallen into place for us.” Germinder said.
“I really believe that foundation is what is going to be our success this year. It’s there, it’s just a different team.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Hackett's Harrison Wheeler points to the pole vaulting record he hopes to break this season, while pole vaulting coach Shelly (Martin) Germinder points to the record she still holds at the school. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Hackett head track & field coach Charissa Dean, Liam Mann, Germinder and Gavin Sehy. (Below) The Irish celebrate last season’s Finals championship, from left: Dean, Sehy, Logan St. Martin, Alex Dumont, Mitch Eastman, Nick Doerr and Germinder. (Top photo and head shots by Pam Shebest; team photo courtesy of Hackett track & field.)