Pioneer's Johnson Focused on Finish

May 24, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

At 6-foot-1 and a solid 205 pounds, Drake Johnson looks every bit the college running back he’ll become this fall at the University of Michigan.

And amid chasing the MHSAA record for single-season rushing yards this fall, he became a recognizable face as well.

But not long ago, Johnson was known primarily for the elite times he ran during track season. And that allowed the Ann Arbor Pioneer hurdler to have a little extra fun.

A self-admitted jokester, Johnson would get a chuckle before races while watching opponents keep a lookout for him, not realizing he was standing next to them.

“Let’s see who they think I am before the race,” Johnson would say to himself. “And once they figured out who I am, they’d be like, ‘No way! This can’t be Drake.’

“I’d just win the race.”

Now there are few in MHSAA track and field who don't recognize him – or know of the legacy he's about the leave. 

Johnson is a two-time MHSAA Division 1 champion in the 110-meter hurdles, and won both that race (14.25) and the 300 hurdles (38.63) at Friday's Division 1 Regional at Saline. He owns the Pioneers’ record in the 110 hurdles of 13.7 seconds, and also will run as part of the 1,600 relay at next weekend’s Division I Final at East Kentwood High.

A Second Half High 5 recipient this week, Johnson has two goals for his final high school meet: Break the all-Finals record in the 110 of 13.6 seconds set by Detroit Central’s Thomas Wilcher in 1982, and win the 300 intermediate hurdles – a race he qualified for last season, but did not advance in past the preliminaries.

Johnson won both hurdles races at last weekend's Regional by more than a second – margins that also have become the norm. After finishing third in the 110 hurdles as a freshman at the 2009 Division 1 Final, Johnson won that race in 2010 by 34 hundredths of a second and last season by 44 hundredths.

His 13.9 Finals qualifying time this spring is the second-fastest among all four divisions. And his best time in high school competition – 13.7 – is faster than them all.

“He’s always had high aspirations to do really well,” said Pioneer coach Don Sleeman, who is finishing his 39th season coaching the Pioneers' boys team. “He’s basically been (this) way from the get-go. I’ve had kids you could see as freshmen would be really good if they developed … but Drake was really good from freshman year on. His talent was pretty obvious.”

And it’s not restricted to hurdles. Johnson would do just fine as a sprinter – for example, he’s beaten Ann Arbor Skyline’s Nathan Hansen, who posted the fifth-fastest Division 1 qualifying time in the 100 of 10.8 seconds. Johnson uses his strength to power through races like he has a ball tucked under his arm, continuously accelerating as others begin to fade.

And the hurdles offer a canvas on which he can create what he describes as his art.

“Everyone has a top speed. It's only one variable -- are you fast, or are you not fast? With hurdles, … it’s a combination of speed and hours of working on technique,” Johnson said. “There's almost that second variable to it, that X factor. A lot of people … can work on technique for hours and hours.

"It’s deeper, but at the time, it’s so incredibly simple. Whoever gets there faster wins the race. Whatever form allows me to finish the fastest, then technically I have better form than you do.”

Johnson has seven entries in the MHSAA football record book, thanks to his incredible numbers in the fall. In 12 games, Johnson ran 344 times for 2,809 yards and 37 touchdowns, and scored 38 times total. His yardage is sixth-most for one season in MHSAA history.

A downfall of his final run through high school track has been the outside expectation that he would post super-fast times in every race – although doing so hasn't always been necessary to win. Sometimes, Johnson focused more on working on nuances, or saving up energy for other events.

But he’s looking forward to one last opportunity to let fly before moving down the road and onto the next level of competition.

“Knowing that it’s my last chance to get the record, I have a sense of urgency almost,” Johnson said. “Also, if I had an actually good start, and a full race, if I run the way I feeI could run it, I’m hoping I could possibly go 13.1 – if I were to run the perfect race.”

Click to read more about Johnson's career aspirations and favorite football runners. 

PHOTO: Ann Arbor Pioneer's Drake Johnson won last season's MHSAA Division 1 110 hurdles Final by nearly half a second.

Red Devils Impress as Ironwood Honors Record-Setter with Jim LaBlonde Invitational

By John Vrancic
Special for

May 20, 2024

IRONWOOD — The Ironwood track & field teams provided themselves with an opportunity to do a victory lap on a very special Saturday earlier this month.

Upper PeninsulaBoth teams were crowned champions at the first Jim LaBlonde Invitational on May 11 on their 350-meter track during a sunny and mild afternoon.

The Ironwood girls scored 126 points, followed by Hurley, Wis., with 43, Ontonagon 37 and Watersmeet with 13. Ironwood’s boys collected 100 points, followed by Hurley at 84, Ontonagon 32 and Watersmeet with seven in a meet held in honor of the former Luther L. Wright High School star athlete who passed away due to an aneurysm on March 31, 2019.

LaBlonde, who was recently inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, was an all-Upper Peninsula football player and still holds school records in the 100 and 200-meter dashes from his senior year in 1997.

“This is very special to me personally,” Ironwood coach Cecilia Aho said. “Jim was a great person and athlete. I came to Ironwood from Argentina in December 2003 and know the family very well. I had some good conversations with Jim before he passed. This is a great tribute to him. It turned out to be a beautiful day. We had perfect weather and the kids from all four schools were smiling and having fun.

“Jim was well known in the community, not only as a coach, but as a parent. He was a phenomenal runner and football player.”

LaBlonde played football for three years at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and was on the school’s track team for a year while earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education in 2003.

He was a middle school teacher and coach in the Howard-Suamico District near Green Bay, Wis., at the time of his passing.

“He always asked about what was going on in Ironwood and was a good leader,” Aho said. “He would never turn his back on you when you asked him a question. The kids loved him. I wish I would have had a chance to work with him.”

The Ironwood teams take a photo together, at top, after sweeping the meets. Below, from left, LaBlonde’s brother-in-law Dave Lundin, sister Dena Lundin and parents Marlene and Jim LaBlonde attend the meet. Senior Aubrey Smith topped a field of four Ironwood runners in the 1600-meter run in 5 minutes, 55.69 seconds, followed by freshman Iyla Lagalo (6:54.08) and sophomore Aubrey Balduc (7:21.16).

Smith also won the 300 hurdles at 52.43, more than six seconds ahead of the rest of the field.

“It was nice to have everyone here,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have a home meet, especially on a Saturday. I think it’s a fun meet. It’s nice to know everyone here. I think this gives me a little momentum going into our remaining meets.”

Sophomore Emma Wardon was also a double winner for the Red Devils, taking shot put (32-11) and discus (87-0).

Ironwood sophomore Logan Holm took the 110 hurdles (20.17) and 300s (48.05), and Hurley had a triple-winner in junior Jeremiah Wallis, who captured the 100 (12.0), 200 (24.52) and long jump (17-3).

Watersmeet junior Thomas Carson won the 400 (54.06), five days after setting the school record (52.31) while placing second in the Welker Invitational at Ashland, Wis. (52.31).

“I strained my hamstring in Ashland,” he said. “It was a little windy up by the big lake (Superior) and there were a lot of good runners up there. I’m probably about 80-90 (percent), but everything went okay. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t overdo it. This is a nice little meet, especially for a Saturday.”

Ontonagon sophomore Violet Amos took the 200 (28.26) and 400 (1:02.03) and was runner-up to Hurley senior Jaana Aukee on a lean (13.65) in the 100.

“I’ve been in the 27s in the 200, but I’m very happy with my time in the 400” Amos said. “This being a little smaller track was probably a factor because the curves are a little tighter. I prefer to run a 400-meter track, although I like the running surface and competition.

“It’s always fun to come here. Our track is getting resurfaced. I’m looking forward to running on it the next couple years.”

Ontonagon coach Brian Amos said he also enjoys going to Ironwood.

“Ironwood runs a nice meet, and we get a chance to see Hurley,” he added. “It’s always nice to run against somebody different.”

John VrancicJohn Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

PHOTOS (Top) Ribbons and medals are set out to be awarded during the first Jim LaBlonde Invitational at Ironwood. (Middle) The Ironwood teams take a photo together, at top, after sweeping the meets. Below, from left, LaBlonde’s brother-in-law Dave Lundin, sister Dena Lundin and parents Marlene and Jim LaBlonde attend the meet. (Photos provided by the Ironwood Red Devil Booster Club.)