Diaz, Jones Star Again, While Lansing Catholic Follows Standout Pair
By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com
June 4, 2022
KENT CITY – Benny Diaz’ first three races of Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Track & Field Finals at Kent City High School said a lot about his considerable ability and sheer speed.
His fourth and final race said a lot about his character, even though he didn’t win that one.
The Saugatuck senior blazed to championships in the 110-meter hurdles (13.64 seconds), 100 dash (11.16) and 300 hurdles (39.43) before he pulled up with a hamstring injury near the midway point of the 200 dash.
Diaz, a University of Michigan signee, had a chance to become a four-event winner, but it was not in the cards. After he bent over at the waist and paused on the track, he finished the 200 in a slow trot as the packed stands cheered him to the finish line. He was “slightly upset,” but just wanted to finish the race.
“I’d say it’s better to finish it than to just stop,” Diaz said. “I guess it says a lot about your character. You’re willing to finish things, even if it’s not going so well.”
Diaz’ injury opened the door for Lansing Catholic to capture its second Division 3 team championship, and first since 2012. Lansing Catholic finished with 38 points to edge Saugatuck by a single point.
Led by junior Hunter Jones’ pair of individual titles, Benzie Central placed third with 32 points. Pewamo-Westphalia (30) and Hart (29) rounded out the top five.
Lansing Catholic took first in the final race of the day, the 1,600 relay (3:25.91), to push the Cougars over the top. Senior Josh Otten anchored that winning relay, placed runner-up in the 400 and third in the 1,600, and he anchored the second-place 3,200 relay. Senior Dave Pruder was third in the 800, and he joined Otten on the aforementioned relays that scored valuable points for the Cougars.
“Every one of them came through,” said Lansing Catholic coach Tim Simpson, who also guided the Cougars to the Division 3 title in 2012. “Otten came through with a huge day, Pruder came through with a huge day. Everybody else did their job.”
Jones captured championships in the 800 (personal record 1:52.68) and 1,600 (4:10.68), and he finished second in the 3,200 (9:25.87) to join Diaz as one of the top performers of the meet.
Jones now has three MHSAA track state titles under his belt, as well as three Division 3 cross country championships. He won the 1,600 at last year’s Finals.
“I was comfortable for the mile and the 800 I was strong, but after the 800 I was at the trash can – I wasn’t feeling well,” said Jones, who is close to announcing his college commitment to a Division I school but is keeping that announcement close to the vest.
“My coaches, they helped me out. They helped me gain confidence and I threw myself on the track, got around eight laps and got runner-up (in the 3,200).”
Diaz finishes his storybook high school track career with five total Finals titles, going back-to-back in both hurdles events as a junior and senior.
Hurdles are the specialty for the slender Diaz, a 6-foot-1, 160-pounder, who glides along the track and makes it look effortless.
Seemingly stuck with the pack in the 100 on Saturday, Benny turned on his jets in the final 30 meters and burst to an impressive victory. He said that he tends to be a slower starter and strong finisher.
“Oh, no, it’s like that – it’s like that,” Diaz said with a grin. “I can just be lackadaisical before the start and just, it turns on. I mean, that’s just the type of kid I am, kind of low energy, just chill. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.
“That’s just my race. I’m usually behind at the start and then I catch up with my top speed – speed and endurance.”
Diaz hobbled to the medal stand after the 200. He attributed the left hamstring injury to nerve problems, which flared up Friday.
He said he didn’t know how the nerve issues started and was hoping it wouldn’t be an issue Saturday.
“I’ve just been managing it. I was trying to keep it a secret, but now it’s kind of out the window,” a smiling Diaz said.
“But, I mean, I’m still happy with 30 points.”
Other individual champions included Sanford Meridian’s Dane Plichta in the 200 (22.82), Richmond’s Evan Green in the 400 (49.79 PR), Manton’s Noah Morrow in the 3,200 (9:17.84), Mason County Central’s Andrew Quinn in shot put (61-1.5 PR), Hart’s Kellen Kimes in discus (165-10 PR), Lake City’s Gavin Bisballe in high jump (6-5), Ovid-Elsie’s Tryce Tokar in pole vault (14-3 PR) and Warren Michigan Collegiate’s Trevon Redding in long jump (22-5).
Other first-place relay teams included Madison Heights Bishop Foley in the 400 (44.38), Sanford Meridian in the 800 (1:30.97), and Traverse City St. Francis in the 3,200 (8:10.56).
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett sophomore Jacob Juip competed in the first-time adaptive events in the 100 (57.63) and 200 (2:17.57).
PHOTOS (Top) Saugatuck's Benny Diaz, middle, builds his lead in the 110 hurdles Saturday at Kent City. (Middle) Benzie Central's Hunter Jones sets the pace on the way to one of his two race wins. (Click for more by Carter Sherline/Run Michigan.)
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.)