Meridian Speedsters Find Home on Track

May 20, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

SANFORD — Nobody had to talk Christian Petre into playing baseball or persuade Hailey Stockford that playing softball might be fun.

Both fell in love with those respective sports early on. 

But track and field? THAT took some lobbying from others to get the two sprint stars at Sanford Meridian on the oval.

Both added more titles to championship careers Friday, as each won the 100 and 200-meter sprints at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Regional at Clare to qualify for the MHSAA Finals on June 4 at Comstock Park. Petre also ran on two winning relays, while Stockford ran on a relay that finished runner-up.

Petre was a freshman when his older brother, Mic, tried to talk him into running track. 

"He saw me run during my football games and said he really wanted me to run track," Petre said. "He put some pressure on me. At first, I wasn't really sure, because the only thing I knew was baseball back then. I wasn't really sure about track. I didn't think it was a good idea. I told him 'no,' at first. Eventually, I changed my mind. I said, 'I might as well try it. I don't know where this could lead.'"

In Petre's case, it led to an MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 100-meter championship among four all-state finishes last spring while he also played on a Sanford Meridian baseball team that was ranked No. 2 in the state before getting upset in the District Semifinals. 

For Stockford, there was a similar reward for adding track and field to her plate in the spring. In her first year on the track, the former softball center fielder won the Division 3 championship in the 100 and 200.

Her speed became apparent when she was faster than many of the boys on the football team in a 40-yard dash in gym class. The instructor for that class was Mike Bilina, who is Meridian's varsity football and boys track and field coach. 

"My time was really good," Stockford recalls. "He kept telling me I should join the track team. I'm like, 'No, I'm playing softball; I don't think that's for me.' I ended up changing my mind. I guess at the time I was thinking I wanted to dedicate everything to softball. I thought it would be best to focus on one sport."

Stockford finally came out for track one week into the season last year as a junior. She quickly caught on, winning the 100 in 12.07 seconds and the 200 in 25.11 seconds at the Division 3 Finals, just 45 days after competing in the first meet of her life. 

Both became champions while juggling two sports — their first loves and their new loves. Neither has been beaten in the sprints this season as they attempt to close out their high school careers with more championships.

"The coaches are pretty understandable and communicate well with each other on what day I'd be doing what," Petre said. "It's not that difficult for me, really. I put a lot of work in over the offseason. I try to get ahead of the game before the season actually starts, so when the season comes around I can just go about it normally and not have to stress about going back and forth with each sport." 

Being able to do two sports in the same season not only benefits student-athletes who are capable of handling the workload, but it benefits the teams at Sanford Meridian, which has an enrollment of 408.

"Because we're so small, if we didn't have dual sports, we'd lose a lot of athletes from one sport to the next," girls track and field coach Jenny Nosakowski said. "We're pretty open. We try to work with the coaches. We've had a lot of kids come over from baseball this year. We try to work it so both of our teams, baseball and track, will benefit." 

Running in his first MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals, Petre cracked the top four in all four of his events to help Meridian place fourth as a team. He won the 100-meter dash in come-from-behind fashion with a time of 11.13 seconds. He anchored the fourth-place 800 relay team and third-place 400 relay team before finishing third in the 200 in 22.72 seconds.

Petre is convinced that the competition he's experienced in other sports helped him cope with the pressure of track and field Finals. 

"Especially since I was on varsity as a freshman in football and baseball," he said. "Just playing on a bigger stage at only 14 years old really helped me. I was really nervous at state last year. I had a lot of adrenaline pumping. I didn't know what to expect. I feel like the past experience really did help. I wasn't as nervous as I could have been."

Running at a high level all day may have caught up with Petre in the 200, his final event. He had the fastest time in the preliminaries (22.44) before taking third. 

"I don't want to make any excuses," he said. "I had a long day with prelims and relays. I guess I didn't train my body as well as I could have last year, so I got a little fatigued and came up a little bit short. I didn't run the race I expected in the 200."

Coming up short in the 200 wasn't the biggest disappointment on that day for Petre. In the middle of the meet, he learned that his baseball teammates were upset, 13-8, by Beaverton in the District Semifinals. The Mustangs had a 29-6 record going into that game. 

"I was really hoping to come back after states and play with my team," Petre said. "It did kind of put a little downer on the day, but it was what it was."

Petre made a different decision the previous year, opting to play in the baseball Districts rather than run in the track and field Finals. He helped the Mustangs win the District championship before they lost in the Regional Semifinals, 3-2 to Cass City. The track and field team, meanwhile, won the MHSAA Division 3 title. 

"It was tough, because at that point I was still new to track," Petre said. "I didn't really know what was going on. Back then, I always said baseball would be first; that's what I decided on that day."

There is a chance that Petre could compete for two MHSAA championship teams this spring. The baseball team has a 25-1 record and is ranked No. 3 in Division 3. The track and field team has been in the top four at the MHSAA Finals the last two years. 

"We've talked about it ever since the beginning of both seasons," Petre said. "It's crazy to think that could happen. As of right now, we have to keep working on the little things and keep moving forward, so when it comes time to do this, we're ready to compete."

Petre's speed was also put to good use as Meridian's starting quarterback the last four years. Petre led Meridian to a school-record 10 victories last fall. The Mustangs won their first 10 games before losing to eventual Division 6 champion Ithaca in the second round. He had a 30-10 record as Meridian's quarterback, having been promoted from the junior varsity early in his freshman year. 

"I was the head JV coach," Bilina said. "He was taken from me in Week 2. We knew he was a special athlete early on. He was just faster than everyone as a freshman. He was forced into a position where he had to go up a little bit quicker. He handled it very well. He's the winningest quarterback in Meridian history. He's received a lot of individual and team honors. He's in the history books here at Meridian, that's for sure."

Petre, a center fielder and pitcher, isn't sure which sport he'll play in college. 

"I have a preferred walk-on to Northwood for football," he said. "Davenport has offered me for track. Saginaw Valley is still talking to me for track. I'm going to see how the summer plays out for baseball."

Petre legged out four triples in a doubleheader sweep of Gladwin on Tuesday, including two in the first inning of the opening game. For the season, Petre is hitting .541 with six triples, a homer, 22 RBI and 40 runs.

As one could imagine, stealing bases was a big part of Stockford's game on the softball diamond.

"A lot of teams we play pretty much expect it," said Stockford, who was a center fielder. 

Stockford also played volleyball at Sanford Meridian, but softball had always been her favorite sport.

"I played since I was little in T-ball," she said. "My dad was a really good baseball player, so it was just in the family. My brother and sister also played." 

Another family member, cousin Sarah Stockford, helped close the deal in getting Hailey to run track last season.

"A week into the season, I just got the urge to run it," Hailey said. "My cousin was on the team, and I'm really close with her. I figured it'd be a good year to try it if I was going to. I had been told I was fast. I knew I was fast based on stealing in softball." 

Less than seven weeks after getting started in the sport, Stockford found herself on the track at Comstock Park as a championship contender in both sprint events.

"You never know what to expect, especially it being my first year running, but that's obviously the outcome I was hoping for," Stockford said. "I just wanted to go in there and see what I could do. 

"It's a great atmosphere. It could be overwhelming. There are a lot of schools there. You know how important the meet was. It was a different experience, but it was fun. In every other sport I played, you relied on your teammates. Being there in an individual sport in such an important meet was different for me."

Stockford has never been beaten in the 100 in her high school career, losing in the finals of the 200 only three times. Her talent caught the eye of Saginaw Valley State University, which offered her a track and field scholarship. So, the girl who thought of herself primarily as a softball player will be competing in a different sport on the college level. 

"I had coaches talk to me about playing softball in college, but I see potential in myself in track," Stockford said. "I've done good so far. I'm hoping to get better and see how I can do. I thought it would be something I might regret if I didn't try it."

Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sanford Meridian's Christian Petre leads the pack during a sprint at Beaverton on April 27. (Middle) Meridian's Hailey Stockford takes off from the blocks, also during the Beaverton meet. (Photos courtesy of the Sanford Meridian athletic department.)

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for

April 10, 2024

Bob Branch remembers dabbling in other sports, but his first love was always running.

Mid-MichiganThe Hastings High School graduate admits he could never hit a baseball, football didn't especially appeal to him and basketball was just another way to spend time with friends. But for Branch, now 93, there was always track. That's the sport where his fondest and sharpest memories remain. And if you're talking track, many of his favorite memories come from participation in the state's oldest continuous track meet, the Hastings Relays.

Always held in early April, the meet dates back to 1937 – a bygone time that saw the first hostilities of World War II, gas at 20 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread selling for a dime.

And at a dusty old track surrounding the county fairgrounds in Hastings, a small relay event that included a scattering of participants from a dozen high schools was taking its first tentative steps.

Branch recalls a time when kids would run home after track practice because there were no buses, inexperienced young coaches had little actual knowledge of running fundamentals, and athletes looked at the sport as an afterthought after spending most of their high school days playing football and basketball.

The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago.For Branch, the relays were the ideal way to ease into the track season.

"I just liked to run," said Branch. "I remember I anchored a relay with my brother, and it always seemed cold when we had that meet. I remember teams would come from all over and you saw a lot of good athletes. Everybody seemed to have someone who was really good. Track wasn't very popular at that time, but I have a lot of good memories from running."

The Hastings Relays, which has changed formats and even names during its nearly nine-decade history, would traditionally kick off the track season. The meet was originally held at a makeshift quarter-mile track which surrounded the town's fairgrounds and was part of the city's annual Hastings Carnival – the track would become the midway during fair time.

The meet eventually moved to Johnson Field when the football field was dedicated in 1949 and ballooned to as many as 50 teams at its peak in 1957. For more than seven decades it was known as the Hastings Relays and then the Hastings Co-Ed relays before becoming the current Hastings Invitational, with the latest edition scheduled for Friday.

Johnson Field had a cinder track before it became an all-weather surface in the 1980s. During a time long before computers would be used to organize meet heats in mere minutes, Hastings coaches of all sports – defined as "volunteers" by the athletic department – would meet on the Friday before competition to hash out events.

People associated with the meet still recall the camaraderie built on those long Friday nights, followed by working what would often become 10-hour meets. Steve Hoke has been involved since watching his father, Jack, who coached teams at 15 of the meets beginning in 1951 and also had run in the first Hastings Relays. Steve Hoke later competed in the Relays as well during the early 1970s before becoming an assistant track coach, later the Hastings athletic director and now a volunteer worker.

"It was always a huge deal," said Hoke, who said the meet began as a pure relay event before transitioning to its current team format in the 1990s. "I remember we'd line the track the night before, and all the coaches would come to the house to organize everything. There was a brotherhood.”

Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s.If you quiz many of the fleet of volunteers who've worked the relays over the years, each has a different memory from the meet. While Hoke describes the brotherhood and Branch the outstanding competition, others remember weather and the time a thunderstorm wiped out the line markings on the cinder track, or waking up to find three inches of snow that caused a rare cancellation of the meet. Others recall the shock of moving from the cinder to all-weather track or using the meet as an early measuring stick of what it would take to qualify for the state meet. The real old-timers remember the meet disappearing for three years during World War II.

Hastings native and Western Michigan grad Tom Duits was the state’s second collegian to break the four-minute mile when he ran a 3:59.2 at a meet in Philadelphia in 1978. Duits, who ran in three Hastings Relays, was in line to join the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 before the United States pulled out of the games due to tension with Russia.

Duits has his own memories of the meet and the competition he faced there.

"I remember sunshine and being excited to be competing again. There were all these athletes swarming around; it was an awesome display of talent," he said. "It was always one of the best meets we'd be in. You could pretty much see the level of runners who would be at state, which made it a big deal. It was always early, but you could tell where you stood. It was great exposure."

Hastings track star Wayne Oom competed in four Hastings Relays from 1984-87. One of his sharpest memories was the difference between running on a raw cinder track versus the far more comfortable all-weather surface.

"Those cinders would grind into your skin," said Oom, part of the Hastings school record in the two-mile relay. "But I think it helped us because when we'd go to other tracks, it seemed we would run faster. I remember how competitive it was, especially in the distances. There were some great runners."

While participants have their unique memories, so do coaches. Former Saxons coach Paul Fulmer remembers 2008 when his team finished first on the boys side of the meet while his wife, Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, saw her girls team win the championship.

Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays."I knew we were one of the favorites to win because we were usually near the top of our conference and Regional," he said. "But then Katie's team was pretty good, and it was cool for them to win too."

Fulmer, who coached Hastings from 1978-81 and then 1985-2010, said at least part of the meet's popularity was derived from a unique way of scoring. Instead of individuals earning points solo, participants worked in pairs. For instance, two athletes would combine their shot put or long jump scores. New events such as the 1,500 relay and sprint medley were added.

"We had a tradition of being the state's oldest meet, and that was a big deal," Fulmer said. "And we ran a good relay; that attracted teams too. We took a lot of pride in that.

"And we'd get quite a lot of people to come to the meet. We'd set up until like 9 or 10 p.m., and then we'd have a party with all the coaches on Friday night."

While the meet has stretched 87 years, Branch said early participants and current runners have one thing in common: a drive to win. Branch ran in an era when the popularity of high school track was in its infancy. Today some of the best all-around athletes at a school are involved in the track program. The relays span the nearly nine decades in between.

"The quality of teams has gotten better and better," said Branch, the 1947 Lower Peninsula Class B Finals champ in the 220. "And this has made for a better meet. We would get guys who played football or baseball kind of drift into track, and that made the sport better. I think people began to appreciate track because we'd get teams from all over.

"We went from not really knowing what we were doing to track being a good sport. Even then, I'm not sure we appreciated what we had. We really liked the Hastings Relays and always wanted to do well there. It became popular and quite an honor to do well. Those are the kind of things I remember."

PHOTOS (Top) Racers run at the Hastings Relays, with several more awaiting their turns to compete at the longtime meet. (2) The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago. (3) Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s. (4) Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays. (Top photo by Dan Goggins, Hoke photo provided by Steve Hoke and Duits photos provided by Tom Duits.)