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.

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.)