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.)

Hackett Catholic Prep's Baldwin Carrying Hopes from Home to Paris

By Pam Shebest
Special for

July 12, 2024

KALAMAZOO — Heath Baldwin studied Spanish at Hackett Catholic Prep, but he will need to brush up on some French as he heads to Paris to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics.

The recent Michigan State University grad, who earned a master’s degree in marketing and research analytics, will compete in the decathlon, a two-day event Aug. 2-3 at the Stade de France.

While the Olympics will be televised in the United States, because of the time difference, Baldwin’s events will take place locally during the early morning hours.

Wishing him a Bon Voyage, more than 200 former classmates, friends, family and well-wishers plus six television crews congregated Thursday for an impressive sendoff, starting with the Hackett “Summer Ensemble” playing the school fight song.

A 2019 Hackett grad, Baldwin led the track & field team to three Regional championships, two MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 titles, was an individual five-time Finals champion, holds four school records and was named track & field Athlete of the Year for all divisions his senior season by the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association.

“I went through a lot at Hackett, obviously, with my dad (Roger)  passing away (in 2016) and I always had a great support system of people who took care of my family and made sure we were doing good,” Baldwin said. “They’ve stuck with me through college, too, following me in all my events and to this point, so it’s cool that I’m doing well now and they’re along for the ride.”

Hackett clears a hurdle during the 2019 MHSAA Finals.The ride will begin Tuesday when Baldwin travels to Germany to train before heading to Paris.

“Everything’s starting to feel more real,” he said. “I think once I get to Germany and start to train with other people, we’ll be able to get a little competitive. I think it will be fun training in Paris.”

Facing a huge crowd in Paris should not be a problem, he said.

“The more people will only help me. I’m a big adrenalin guy. I feel like I get more nervous talking at an event like this than I do for the Olympic Games.

“Once I get out on the track, everything just feels natural to me.”

Naturally a no-brainer

Baldwin’s Finals championships for Hackett had come in high jump, long jump and both hurdles races. Tackling the grueling decathlon was a no-brainer.

“I was good at the hurdles, high jump, long jump, which are three very technical events in the decathlon, so if you’re good at those three, you usually can pick up the other ones pretty easily is what they say,” he said.

“Also, I played baseball as a pitcher, so that correlated with the javelin. A lot of college coaches recruited me off that, I think.”

Baldwin said knew 2024 was an Olympic year, “so I thought it was something I maybe could do. After last year, when I scored above 8,000 points (in the decathlon) for the first time and came in sixth at the USAs, it became a little more realistic for me.”

The personable athlete not only qualified for the Olympics at this year’s U.S. Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., but won the decathlon with a personal best 8,625 points.

He finished first in the shot put (54 feet, 2½ inches), high jump (6-11¾), 110 hurdles (13.77 seconds) and javelin throw (218-9). 

MHSAA trophies Baldwin helped win decorated the stage for his sendoff.Other decathlon events are the 100 dash, long jump, 400 run, discus, pole vault and 1,500 run.

Baldwin earned Great Lakes Region Indoor and Outdoor Field Athlete of the Year honors and was named first team Academic All-American with a 3.8 GPA.

"We were awestruck at his athletic achievements (at Hackett),” said Judge Paul Bridenstine, the “Voice of the Irish.” 

“While he continued to play football, basketball, baseball exceptionally at Hackett, his athletic life was transformed when he was introduced to (former HCP track & field coach Simon Cholometes).”

Cholometes said Baldwin’s success is something that didn’t come out of nowhere.

“Heath put the wheels in motion a long time ago and worked harder than most people can even fathom,” he said. “I can remember 5:40 in the morning, Heath running sprints up that hill over there,” he said, pointing. “A foot of snow, running sprints up that tall hill.

“In college, he’s a Big 10 champ, three-time All-American, Great Lakes Region Indoor and Outdoor Field Athlete of the Year, MSU’s Athlete of the Year twice, holds five school records plus Big 10 records in heptathlon and decathlon.”

Family won't be far

Baldwin plans to be in Paris for the opening ceremonies and will be cheered on by his mom Suzann, sister Hope and brothers Aiden and Gowan.

The Olympian also will have a remembrance of his late father with him. He has a tattoo of his dad’s signature on the inside of his upper left arm.

A hurdle that was gifted to Baldwin on Thursday.Losing his father “was a big part of my life and obviously changed my perspective in the way I train and the way I live in a way he’d be proud of,” Baldwin said.

“We set some big goals going into this year and it’s been a dream. I love representing the Kalamazoo community and Michigan, Hackett and Michigan State.

“I like to remember everybody I compete for, and I think that gives you a bigger purpose when you go out there. That’s definitely something I’ll be doing at the Olympics in Paris. I’m excited to represent there and hopefully go for a medal.”

PHOTOS (Top) Health Baldwin, seated, signs a hat during his sendoff Thursday at Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep. (2) Baldwin clears a hurdle during the 2019 MHSAA Finals. (3) A hurdle was gifted to Baldwin on Thursday. (4) MHSAA trophies Baldwin helped win decorated the stage for his sendoff. (Sendoff photo by Pam Shebest.)