Lober Begins 50th Year On Track at TC Central

March 29, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

Traverse City Central boys track & field coach John Lober has a seemingly endless number of stories about athletes he convinced to come out for the sport.

The collection of pictures from teams of the past and championship trophies that adorn his office deep in the recesses of Central High School are just as impressive as the anecdotes. All are the byproduct of a legendary career coaching track that has spanned 55 years.

Lober is adding yet another milestone to his legacy this spring as he has started his 50th season of coaching at Central — a half-century of impacting runners and churning out successful teams at the school.

“If you would’ve told me I was going to be some place for 50 years when I started out here (I wouldn’t have believed it),” said Lober. “Nobody does that. I just feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do now what I’ve been doing all these years.”

Lober has maintained the same formula for coaching his teams — work hard, be responsible, do the right thing and treat others with kindness — principles he learned at a young age and the basic tenets for how he’s lived his life.

“I told the kids, ‘We don’t have any rules,’” he explains. “We could have 10 pages of rules, but I’m not going to do that, so we don’t have any rules. We have expectations, though. If you can’t meet those expectations this is the wrong place to spend your afternoons.

“Everything is a choice in life. You choose to be here, you choose how hard you work, you choose your attitude when you get up in the morning.”

The results have been unmistakable. One MHSAA Finals championship in 1992, 10 times finishing in the top 10, 11 Regional championships, 15 Big North Conference titles — including a current streak of 10 in a row — and five Lake Michigan Athletic Conference crowns. He has coached 54 athletes who reached an all-state level and 10 who were state champions. Six state record holders have come from Lober’s program.

Lober joined Joe Neihardt’s staff in 1969 at Traverse City High School after stints at Bellaire and in Sylvania, Ohio. He took over as head coach in 1977 and has been a fixture in the position. His focus has always been on the track & field teams at Central, but he’s been a major proponent for the sport no matter the school. He takes pride in the running successes of the athletes and coaches at the other high schools in Traverse City — Lober was right there when Central and West split into two schools in 1997 — and around the northern Michigan region.

“I’ve advocated for the sport and the student,” said Lober. “This isn’t about me. It’s about kids walking off that stage with an experience. It’s a positive experience, and we’re using our sport to educate.”

Lober has certainly done his share of work to generate increased participation in track & field. The Trojans regularly have 100-plus members, a reflection of the time he spends recruiting students to the team.

Traverse City Central junior Nathan Hullman had never run track before this season, but he had friends on the team and elected to join the program after Lober showed up in the weight room one day and started detailing all the benefits of the sport. Hullman will be a sprinter for the Trojans.

“He’s been doing it for 50 years. He seems like he knows a lot. He sounds like he’s coached a lot of good teams. I have faith in him,” said Hullman. “I hope to just learn how to run better, to get faster.”

Lober retired from teaching in 2000, but he is a familiar face around school and at sporting events. His affable personality and longevity as a coach have made him a popular icon in the community.

“He was the first person to call me when I took the job,” said Central athletic director Zac Stevenson, who came to the school in October from Battle Creek Lakeview and is the ninth AD since Lober started at Central. “The principal asked if she could share my information with everyone. Then within minutes he reached out to me via text message and welcomed me to the community, introducing himself. He is so super supportive. I have seen him at home games — boys basketball, girls basketball, wrestling meets. He’s there supporting kids and supporting staff all the time. It’s so exciting to watch.”

Lober coached cross country at Central for 28 years, too, but retired from that position two years ago. That freed him up to spend more time golfing, or watch his grandsons play football. He thought he was going to hang it up as a track & field coach last season as well, even telling then-athletic director Mark Mattson that 2018 was going to be his last year. But one day in his office, as he watched his veteran coaching staff of Don Lukens, Chris Ludka, Konrad Visser, Tim Donahey, John Piatek, Bryan Burns and Tony Moreno get ready for practice, he realized he wasn’t ready to give it up.

“I was sitting down here and the coaches are all down here and I’m seeing them talking back and forth and I thought, ‘I’m not ready to give this up,’” said Lober. “I can’t get that anywhere else in my life. If I didn’t have these guys, who are all veteran coaches, it would be hard for me to come back. We’ve had a lot of talks about that. They know what to expect from me. I know what my expectations are for them.”

The students also brought Lober back. He likes the group he has, and he looks forward to seeing how the 2019 season transpires. He likens this time of year to holding a ball of clay, then molding it into a cohesive unit that comes together and competes at a high level at meets.

Last year’s finished the season tied for seventh at the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals, with then-senior Cassidy Henshaw winning the high jump.

“I really like taking a group of guys, bringing them together, teaching them all something and they all have their jobs, so to speak,” said Lober. “You go into a meet, and when it’s all done, we’ll see how we did. As we get into the championship part of the schedule, the first three weeks of May, let’s see where we are. Let’s see where the chips fall.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at sports@antrimreview.net 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) Traverse City Central boys track & field coach John Lober talks things over during a practice last spring. (Middle) Lober keeps an eye on his watch during a race. (Photos courtesy of WPBN.)

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 pamkzoo@aol.com 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.)