Longtime Coach Lober Steps Away from XC
August 18, 2017
By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – When the Traverse City Central boys cross country team opened practice last Wednesday, the gregarious John Lober was nowhere in sight.
Instead, the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach was teeing it up on a golf course in Kalkaska County.
Lober, the driving force behind Traverse City Central boys running, stepped down as cross country coach after 28 years. He’ll continue as the track & field coach in the spring - his 49th year at Central and 54th season of coaching overall.
“I’m definitely going to miss it, but I’m lucky to say that a lot of these kids (in cross country) run track so I’ll still have an association with them,” Lober said. “It’s always about the kids and that association.”
Bryan Burns, who coached the Maple City Glen Lake girls to the Lower Peninsula Division 4 cross country title in 2000, is succeeding Lober.
“He’s a legend,” Central athletic director/assistant principal Mark Mattson said of Lober. “The guy’s put nearly 50 years into his craft at our school. That’s unprecedented. Fortunately, we get to keep him for track.”
Lober turned 75 in March.
“He’s 75 going on 35,” Mattson added. “He has such energy and passion. He’s everywhere - all the time.”
Still, Lober thought the time was right to make a change.
“I think it was my daughter who said something about me being in the fourth quarter,” he recalled. “Well, the greatest things happen in the fourth quarter. That’s when everything is on the line. Subconsciously, I’m thinking, ‘What are you going to do in the fourth quarter? How is this going to play out?’”
Lober experienced a taste of life without cross country last season – albeit for just two weeks – when he and his partner of 11 years, Margo Million, took a September vacation to New England.
And, as for any withdrawal symptoms in the last month, Lober’s been too busy for that to happen. He took in eight Traverse City Film Festival movies in late July and then the following week played 18 holes of golf four consecutive days with his visiting grandson and a friend.
“It’s been pretty Lober silent around (school), and I know that’s by John’s choice to stay out of the way and let Bryan Burns and his staff have that program be theirs,” Mattson said. “I’m sure that’s not easy for John because I know how much he cares for kids and how much pride he takes in our school and community. He paved the way for so many years. Nonetheless, he has the utmost respect for Bryan, who he helped put in place, and for what they want to do with the program going forward.”
Lober, and coaching companion Don Lukens, took over the Central cross country program in 1989 and turned it into one of the state’s best. According to statistics compiled by michtrack.org, Central had the fourth best program in the state in the 1990s – based on MHSAA Finals finishes – despite the fact the school was split (with West opening) in 1997. The Trojans were 12th from 2000-2009 and 11th from 2010-2016.
“Excellence is typified by a high achievement level over many years,” Lober said, “and I feel we’ve been an excellent program over the last 28 years.
“The system we established that first year (based on principles popularized by notable New Zealand runner and coach Arthur Lydiard) has proven to be a successful system. Little did Don and I know when we started working together that our talents would dovetail and create such a strong situation.”
Since 1989, Central has won 86 invitationals, eight Big North Conference titles and eight Regionals. The Trojans were runners-up in nine Regionals. Central finished second in Class A in 1996, five points behind White Lake Lakeland.
Central qualified for the MHSAA Finals the first 16 years under Lober and Lukens. That streak was snapped in 2005, but it led to one of the most satisfying seasons in 2006.
“Those kids on the 2005 team were the first not to go to states, and they banded together and came back and took third (in Division 1) the next year,” Lober said. “They were awesome. That was a special team.”
The Finals runner-up team in 1996 was special, too. In fact, Lober is reminded of it every day. That squad, after its successful season, planted a tree in Lober’s front yard. Today, it towers over the front of his property.
Lukens, also in the MITCA Hall of Fame, built his legacy as a cross country and track coach at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix before retiring at 55 and moving north. He had 32 years of service in, but his move was hastened after he accidentally “chemically poisoned” himself.
“I was staining my place and I dumped the bucket all over the front of me,” he said. “But I wanted to finish because I had company coming from Pennsylvania. The next day my knees and elbows were so swollen – you talk about pain.”
Lukens originally was told he had lupus, but a trip to the Mayo Clinic revealed it was chemical poisoning.
He was told his condition would improve as time passed, but it would be advantageous if he could retire.
“They said, ‘Remember, stress is a factor. If you don’t retire, don’t plan much until after age 60,’” Lukens recalled. “Well, that scared the dickens out of me.”
Lukens, now 83, was serving as interim athletic director at the time. In the meantime, he and his wife had fallen in love with northern Michigan and purchased property along the Platte River in Benzie County. Lukens started building their house right before the move.
“Every morning I get up, sit on the porch and look at the river,” he said. “You talk about being blessed.”
His coaching days were not over, however. Benzie Central track coach Pete Moss asked if Lukens could work with the team’s pole vaulter in that spring of 1989. In late May, at the Traverse City Record-Eagle Honor Roll track meet, Lober approached Lukens about becoming his distance coach in track. When the cross country job opened, Lober and Lukens took on that responsibility as well.
It’s a union that still exists. Lukens is assisting Burns in cross country and Lober in track.
“I think my wife is happy I’m not in her hair all the time,” Lukens said. “I enjoy working with the kids. They keep me young.”
Lober, whose track team won the Class A title in 1992, feels the same. He retired from teaching during spring break in 2000 when his wife Julie’s cancer returned. She passed in August of that year. It was in those moments afterwards, seeing the support he had from his teams, that it hit him.
“I need them more than they need me,” he said.
Now that he’s not a part of the cross country program, Lober said he’ll miss the dynamics of team building and team bonding. He’ll miss watching raw athletes develop skills they didn’t realize they had. But he won’t be out of sight totally. He’ll be there for meets, just like he’s at other school sporting events during the year. After all, Traverse City Central has been his home away from home for 49 years.
“When we named Travis Schuba our new boys basketball coach last week, John was the first one looking for contact information to congratulate him and welcome him to our staff,” Mattson said. “That’s John Lober. Traverse City Central is family for John.”
And just how long will he coach track?
“I want to coach track a couple more years because I love it,” he said. “Last year was as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching track. Plus, I want to put 50 (years) in. If I’m lucky enough to do that, I’d love it.”
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) Traverse City Central coach John Lober offers direction at a meet during his half-century career. (Middle) Central assistant Don Lukens, left, with Lober. (Photos courtesy of John Lober.)
Ruddy Brothers Return to Track, Help Lift Whiteford to Regional Title
By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com
May 23, 2023
OTTAWA LAKE – Shea and Ryin Ruddy are the answer to everyone who ever wondered if being fast in one or two other sports translates to being fast on the track.
It does, and what they've accomplished this spring is more than enough proof.
In March, the Ruddy brothers came out for track for the first time since middle school for Ottawa Lake Whiteford after the district loosened the rules on athletes wanting to participate in multiple sports during the same season. About seven weeks later, the duo has qualified for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals in four events each and will lead a contingent of 10 Bobcats to Kent City next week.
“What they are doing on the track is amazing,” said Whiteford track & field coach Jay Yockey. “Really, when you look at it, they’ve only lost a couple of races here and there. They aren’t finishing second. They are going out and winning races, winning meets. It is not a small feat at all.”
Shea, a senior, was a four-year starting quarterback for Whiteford who led the Bobcats to the Division 8 championship last fall, scoring the game-winning touchdown on an unforgettable, 17-play fourth-quarter drive. Since his freshman season, he’s also played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.
Ryin, a junior, was also a starter on the Bobcats football team and followed in his older brother’s footsteps with basketball and baseball.
This year, however, they went to Whiteford athletic director Jeremy Simmons to inquire about also running track.
“I had each athlete attend a meeting with both coaches and their parents where we went over the rules,” Simmons said. “We made sure everyone was on the same page and answered questions that they had. Everything is outlined.”
Yockey found out early on what kind of athletes both were.
“They are confident in their abilities but aren’t arrogant and boastful,” Yockey said. “For what they have accomplished this year is truly outstanding – and I understand they are doing pretty well in baseball, too.”
Saturday’s Division 3 Regional at Adrian Madison was a milestone day for both.
Shea won the 400 and was on the 1,600 relay unit that finished first. He also was second in the 100 and part of the 400 relay that came in second.
Ryin was part of both of those relays, plus the 800 relay that placed second – and was Regional champion in the 300 hurdles.
Together, they helped the Bobcats to the team title.
“Ryin’s 300 race really sticks out to me as he is such a competitor and driven to win,” Yockey said.
Ryin took to the hurdles quickly.
“He’s really done quite well with working his hurdle form, attacking each race and winning,” Yockey said. “He currently is seeded seventh in the state in an event that usually takes a season or two to perfect.”
Ryin last ran track in the seventh grade. Shea ran that season as well, which was his eighth-grade year.
“We had high expectations, but I think we exceeded what we thought we would do,” Shea said of this spring. “It was really tough to start, but it’s gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten into the routine. I think it’s benefited me for both sports.”
Shea started out the season competing in the high jump. About two weeks ago he gave the 400 a shot. He ended up winning the Regional in the event and is seeded second going into the Finals.
The Hillsdale College football signee credits Coach Yockey with helping him get up to speed on what to do and not do on the track.
“Coach Yockey helped me a lot. He got me into shape and told me where I needed to be with my times,” Ruddy said. “I kind of wish I would have done it in the past, but it’s all right. I think the years of experience would have paid off.”
Shea is the anchor on the 400 relay and leads off the 1,600 relay. The 1,600 unit holds the school record and had the fastest time of any 1,600 relay in Division 3 earlier this season.
“I knew adding Shea and Ryin would be a benefit for us,” said Yockey. “But, to go in and win a Regional title … that’s always the dream. The fact that we won a Regional title and will go to states with 12 scoring opportunities is definitely exciting. It exceeds my expectations from the start of the season.”
Whiteford had two other Regional champions Saturday – Keegan Masters won both the 1,600 and 3,200 and Stepan Masserant won the Pole Vault. The Regional title was Whiteford’s first since 2007, the same year the Bobcats won the school’s only track & field state championship.
It also comes just a year after Whiteford christened its new track and hosted its first home meet in more than a decade. Yockey said the new track helped ignite interest in the sport.
“Having a new track is huge,” he said. “Kids want to be a part of something they can be proud of, and kids weren’t proud of our track facility. I still hear upperclassmen joke about the gravel lane they had before I got here.
“I think being able to host home meets, and a beautiful facility definitely helps in having kids come out and participate in track & field.”
Shea said he’s not surprised about the rapid rise of the Whiteford boys track & field team this season.
“I’m not shocked,” he said. “I knew we had the talent. We had to put it together, of course, and we’ve done that. I’m satisfied. I’m going to the states in four events. I can’t be disappointed with that.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Shea Ruddy (far left) takes the baton from brother Ryin during a relay this season. (Middle) The 1,600 relay of Shea Ruddy, Dylan Anderson, Ryin Ruddy and Jake Iott show off their latest trophy with Whiteford coach Jay Yockey after the Bobcats claimed their first Regional track & field team title since 2007. (Top photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; middle photo courtesy of the Whiteford boys track & field program.)