With Fast Fall Finish, Alpena's Day Arrives

April 13, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

ALPENA – Mitchell Day, who had a breakout second-place finish in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Cross Country Final last November, is gearing up for what he hopes will be an equally strong track season.

The Alpena junior is one of the state’s top returning 3,200-meter runners. He finished 10th in LP Division 1 a year ago, and followed that up with a second-place finish at the Michigan Indoor Track Series state meet in late February.

“I feel very confident going into spring,” the 16-year-old said. “But I know there’s a lot of work to do, and I’m prepared to do it.”

Day started focusing on track during the winter with workouts designed to build base and improve strength. He said he hopes the results will translate into a faster, stronger kick.

Joe Donajkowski, who coaches the team’s distance runners, said Day is in a good spot, especially when it comes to his endurance.

“He knew he had to put the miles in to get better, and he’s certainly done that,” Donajkowski said. “He has a good base right now. I expect we’ll see some good performances from him throughout the season, as long as he stays healthy.”

Staying healthy is a key. An illness almost cost Day a spot in the MHSAA Final last June.

“I got sick a week or two before the Regional, and missed four or five days of training,” he said. “We were thinking it was walking pneumonia. Thankfully, it wasn’t, but I couldn’t train (properly).  I remember the first mile went well, we went through at 4:40, then it hit me like a wall. I struggled to finish and qualify (for the championship meet).”

Day placed fifth at the Regional in 9:38.65, which earned him the 28th seed at the Final. Given time to recover, Day came back and ran nearly 17 seconds faster in a school record 9:21.76 to take 10th in LP Division 1.

That time came as no surprise to coach Bob Bennett, who called Day a “driven” athlete who once he focuses on a goal “gets after it.”

Day also runs the 1,600 meters, as well as relays, but it’s the 3,200 that he enjoys most.

“The 1,600 is too short for my liking,” he said. “The 3,200 gives me a little bit more time to wear out my opponents.”

Day was a dual-sport fall athlete as a freshman and sophomore, splitting his time playing varsity soccer and running cross country. He also played travel soccer during the summer.

But he decided to give up soccer to focus on running.

“We’re happy he went that way, although I don’t know if our athletic director/soccer coach (Tim Storch) was that happy about it,” Bennett said with a laugh.

Day won two of the three Big North Conference cross country jamborees, claimed the Regional, then took second at the MHSAA Final.

Despite that success, he was second team all-conference. In the third and final league jamboree, which counted 50 percent in the team and individual standings, Day was tripped and lost his balance with about a mile to go.

“I was already dealing with an Achilles problem, and I got hit in the Achilles,” he said.

Down he went – and he didn’t get up right away, which proved costly. He finished back in the pack.

“It was frustrating, but it (motivated) me heading into the state meet,” he said.

Day’s training for the Final went well, so well “we knew I was in for a huge PR,” he said.

Initially, Day was hoping to run close to 15:05, but the wind that day made for a slower race.

“The mile splits were 4:50, and then 5:03-5:05, and then back down to 4:47-4:49,” he said. “The wind played a huge factor. A lot of us had to just hide behind a few of the guys and wait for the last three-quarters of a mile to duke it out.”

When it came to the three-quarter mile mark, the lead pack had whittled to include Rockford’s Isaac Harding and Cole Johnson, Grand Rapids Northview’s Enael Woldemichael, Traverse City Central’s Anthony Berry and Day.

Sizing up the leaders, Day didn’t necessarily like his chances.

“Cole Johnson is a 4:10 miler, Anthony is a 4:08, Isaac’s outstanding, so is Enael,” he said. “I was surrounded by some really good talent and I was like, ‘Shoot, I don’t know if I can keep up with these guys the last 1,200 meters. I don’t know if I have that kind of kick in me.’”

Harding eventually surged, and Day went with him.

“I had another gear I didn’t know I had,” he said. “It was second nature to take off with him.”

Harding won in 15:10.4. Day was three seconds back.

“I was happy with how that turned out,” he said. “I realized there was more in me than what I had shown in the past.”

His time of 15:13.4 was 13 seconds faster than his previous best – and it’s helped attract more interest from college recruiters.

Now, Day’s attention is on track, as a lingering winter finally seems to be giving way to spring.

Alpena’s first meet, last week’s Freeland Invitational, was canceled, but once the season finally gets underway, Day said his goal will be fairly simple.

“I just want to make sure I give it my all,” he said. “I’ll be satisfied if I can do that. I don’t really have any times I would like to hit. Sure, I would like to PR, but it’s more about knowing that I put it all out there and had no regrets.”

Bennett expects nothing less from his star runner.

“We just want him to run as well as he can,” Bennett said. “Physically, he’s a little bigger, more mature. Mentally, he’s right on course. We’re hoping he’s going to have a breakout year.”

Just like he had in cross country.

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Alpena’s Mitchell Day competes during the fall’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Cross Country Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Day, far left, emerges from the pack during the 3,200-meter championship race at last spring’s MHSAA LP Division 1 Track & Field Final at Rockford. (Photos courtesy of the Day family.)

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.

Southwest CorridorThe 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.

Clockwise from top left: Hackett head track & field coach Charissa Dean, Liam Mann, Germinder and Gavin Sehy. “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.”

Seeing potential

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.”

The Irish celebrate last season’s Finals championship, from left: Dean, Sehy, Logan St. Martin, Alex Dumont, Mitch Eastman, Nick Doerr and Germinder. 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 ShebestPam 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 [email protected] 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.)