Memorable Wins and Multi-Champs Highlight LPD1 Track's Return

By Steve Vedder
Special for

June 5, 2021

KENTWOOD – The particulars didn't necessarily matter to Rockford coach Andrew Martin. The only thing which truly mattered was the stunning finish to Saturday's Lower Peninsula Division 1 boys track & field championships at East Kentwood.

Seemingly out of the running for the team title, the Rams' 1,600 relay – a foursome not even running in the event's fast heat – managed a third place in the final event to earn Rockford a tie with Fenton for first place in a wild meet.

Both teams finished with 34 points. Instead of finishing as low as third place in a meet where the top eight were separated by just 12 points, Rockford earned its first Finals crown in 12 years under Martin.

"It doesn't matter how we got there," Martin said of tying for the title. "We were seeded 10th, but these kids are all about doing your own thing."

The Rams relay was comprised of three seniors in Daniel Leja, Gage Martin and Jacob Peck and junior Jacob Bissell. While they finished with a time of 3:23.84, Fenton was slowed by not having a team qualify for the final relay. It was a turn of events which left Fenton coach Anthony McMillan pacing nervously as the final race played out.

"To still do what we did was great," he said. "These kids left a legacy, a path. To bring a state title home is a very special moment. To be one of the (two) teams means a lot to us."

Detroit Cass Tech trackRockford and Fenton were far from the only teams with a breath of life until the final event. Zeeland West finished third with 30 points, Ann Arbor Skyline had 28, Pinckney and Novi 25 and Dexter and Macomb Dakota 24.

While the team title was captivating to the very end, Skyline's Hobbs Kessler virtually stole the individual part of the Finals. Kessler, who became the first Michigan high schooler to qualify for the Olympic trials in 80 years, won the 1,600 (4:16.68) and the 800 (1:54.13). While those finishes weren't necessarily surprises, Kessler's ability to live up to high expectations – including amazing kicks in both events – was even more impressive.

"It's the way I like to win," he said of running his last lap of the 1,600 in 55.1 seconds while also coming from behind to win the 800. "I want to give myself the best shot to win. The wind hit, and I snuck in.

"I know if I work out well and run my best, good things will happen. I know who I have to listen to, and the others aren't as important.  I have a good support system, so I can just go out and win."

Kessler qualified for the Olympic trials last Saturday. He said he'll think more about the future now that the high school season is completed. But he wouldn't rule out competing in this summer's Japan Olympics.

"There's no reason to think I can't," he said.

Among the other double winners at East Kentwood were Tamaal Myers II of Detroit Cass Tech, who claimed the 110 hurdles (14.26) and 300 hurdles (37.87), and Udodi Onwuzurike of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, who won the 100 (10.55) and 200 (21.23).

Myers said an extremely strong headwind didn't do runners any favors. But he was able to overcome the obstacle because of physical toughness, he said.

"It was a strong wind, but I just pushed through it to finish where I did," he said. "Mentally, you just keep going forward. It's all about technique; it's the arms, legs, everything."

Among other runners winning events were Terrence Muex of Flint Carman-Ainsworth in the 400 (46.52) and Hartland's Riley Hough, who won the 3,200 (9:07.91).

Zeeland West won the 800 (1:28.12) and the 1,600 (3:21.82) relays.  St. Joseph won the 400 (42.65) and Novi the 3,200 (7:48.53).

Fenton/Rockford trackDexter's Cole Sheldon won the pole vault (15-3) to complete an inspiring climb that included failing to qualify as a freshmen, to finishing 26th in 2019 to winning Saturday.

"It was just hard work," said Sheldon, who was seeded fourth. "It's nice being the underdog. I didn't have that great of a Regional, and I told my coach I was saving it for the Finals."

Sheldon also credited teammate Noah Schultz, who finished second with a vault of 14-9.

"That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me," Sheldon said. "He's the reason I did so well. If he goes high, I want to go higher."

Among other field event winners was Zachary Webb of Macomb Dakota, who won the high jump in 6-6. While some competitors are actually surprised by winning a state title, Webb doesn't count himself among them.

"I knew when I came in here I couldn't miss," he said. "I wanted to put the pressure on others, and I think I did that. I practice so much, I knew I could do this. I break down a lot of video. If I'm going bad, I look at the video and fix what I need to fix."

The other field event winners were Drake Willenborg of South Lyon in the discus (183-3), Levi Honderd of Holland in the long jump (22-6) and Ben Haas of Clarkston in the shot put (57-8).

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ann Arbor Skyline’s Hobbs Kessler celebrates his victory in the 800 on Saturday. (Middle) Detroit Cass Tech’s Tamaal Myers II sets the pace during his hurdles sweep. (Below) Fenton, top, and Rockford celebrate their team championships.(Action photos by Ike Lea; team photos by John Brabbs/   

Aspirations High as Reigning Champion Hackett Vaults Into New Season

By Pam Shebest
Special for

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.)