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 protected] 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.)

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

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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 first 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.)