Baustert Stands Tall Leading Whitehall

April 15, 2019

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Sam Baustert has never allowed his size to hold him back.

Baustert may be only 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds, but the Whitehall senior has come up big over and over again – with one more track season to go.

“I’ve always been one of the smallest kids in my grade,” said Baustert, who will earn his 12th varsity letter this spring. “That just forced me to work harder, to be more focused and to prepare more.”

He was also blessed with the ability to run far and to run fast.

Baustert embarks on his senior track season as one of the top distance runners along the lakeshore. He won the 3,200 meters last spring at the West Michigan Conference meet and at the Greater Muskegon City meet.

“I expect him to have a great senior year,” said Whitehall boys track coach Kirk Mikkelson, who is starting his 25th season leading the program. “He ran 10 seconds faster in the mile at our meet at Grand Valley than he did in the same meet last year, so that’s a great sign.”

Baustert said one of the secrets to his success is choosing the right sports.

“I played basketball one season and I found out I wasn’t very good,” Baustert said.

So instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, Baustert pivoted to wrestling, where the 14 weight classes provide a spot for every height and weight.

He compiled a standout four-year career on the mat, culminating this winter, when he won West Michigan Conference, county and District titles at 112 pounds. He also was a quiet leader as the Vikings made a run to the Division 3 Team Semifinals, where they lost a tight match to eventual champion Dundee.

Baustert is now shifting his focus back to track, another sport where his small stature doesn’t hold him back. He will run cross country and track at Grand Valley State, where he will be following in the footsteps of his two older siblings, Kyle and Lauren.

“I feel very comfortable at Grand Valley,” explained Baustert, who sees himself specializing in longer distances in college, like his running idol, Mo Farah of England. “It’s close to home, so my family will be able to come see me run. I’m excited to be on a team with a lot of great runners that will make me better.”

His specialty is the 3,200, where his goal for this season is to break the 9:30 mark. He also regularly runs the 1,600, where he hopes to break 4:30. In many meets he helps his team out by running a leg on the 3,200-meter relay.

That grueling, “team-first” mentality forces him to conserve energy for other races and prevents him from running his best times in his favorite event, the 3,200. That is one of the reasons he is looking forward to the Meijer West Michigan All-Star Meet on May 23 at Reeths-Puffer.

“I’ve run my PR at that meet the last two years, because it’s an individual event and I don’t have to run anything else,” said Baustert.

But for the most part, Baustert is a team-first kind of kid, which has made him a key part of the Vikings’ continued success. Whitehall has won or shared 15 consecutive West Michigan Conference boys track & field titles, and won more than 93 percent of its dual meets during Mikkelson’s 24-year tenure.

Mikkelson believes this year’s team has a chance to continue that WMC title streak and also make a run at snapping five-time reigning city champion Fruitport’s stranglehold on that meet’s crown.

Turrell Harris and Tyler Brandel are two of the senior leaders in the sprints, and they combine with sophomore Jaegar McGahan and senior Brett Evans on a formidable sprint relay team. Logan Thomas is strong in the pole vault, and Brandon Kallhof and Bailey Taranko are expected to contribute key points.

As for the distance events, Mikkelson said Baustert is like another coach with that group.

“Sometimes he just takes off with the distance guys, and I know that they’re in good hands,” said Mikkelson. “He’s very analytical about everything. He has the respect of all of his teammates.”

Baustert has stayed busy throughout his high school years, rarely having a day off from practice or a meet with cross country, wrestling and track. Now with less than two months remaining as a prep athlete, he knows it’s his turn to pass on what he’s learned to his younger teammates.

“It’s kind of weird being the team leader, but I guess that’s how it’s supposed to work being a senior,” said Baustert, who plans to major in electrical engineering. “It seems like I was just a freshman, trying to figure things out; now I’m the one with all the answers.”

Another place he’s always had the answers is in the classroom, with a 4.1 GPA and ranking No. 4 in his graduating class of more than 150 students.

“Sam is the epitome of what you look for in a student-athlete,” said Mikkelson. “He’s not a loud kid who is going to get in anybody’s face, but he is an inspiration to our younger kids because of how hard he works and how serious he is. He has been leading by example his whole life.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (top) Whitehall senior Sam Baustert keeps a close eye on his teammates as he waits his turn to run. (Middle) Baustert, far left, runs on the outside last season, looking for a chance to make his move. (Photos courtesy of the Whitehall boys track & field program.)

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.)