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.

Ruddy Brothers Return to Track, Help Lift Whiteford to Regional Title

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 23, 2023

OTTAWA LAKE – Shea and Ryin Ruddy are the answer to everyone who ever wondered if being fast in one or two other sports translates to being fast on the track.

Southeast & BorderIt does, and what they've accomplished this spring is more than enough proof.

In March, the Ruddy brothers came out for track for the first time since middle school for Ottawa Lake Whiteford after the district loosened the rules on athletes wanting to participate in multiple sports during the same season. About seven weeks later, the duo has qualified for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals in four events each and will lead a contingent of 10 Bobcats to Kent City next week.

“What they are doing on the track is amazing,” said Whiteford track & field coach Jay Yockey. “Really, when you look at it, they’ve only lost a couple of races here and there. They aren’t finishing second. They are going out and winning races, winning meets. It is not a small feat at all.”

Shea, a senior, was a four-year starting quarterback for Whiteford who led the Bobcats to the Division 8 championship last fall, scoring the game-winning touchdown on an unforgettable, 17-play fourth-quarter drive. Since his freshman season, he’s also played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.

Ryin, a junior, was also a starter on the Bobcats football team and followed in his older brother’s footsteps with basketball and baseball. 

This year, however, they went to Whiteford athletic director Jeremy Simmons to inquire about also running track. 

“I had each athlete attend a meeting with both coaches and their parents where we went over the rules,” Simmons said. “We made sure everyone was on the same page and answered questions that they had. Everything is outlined.”

Yockey found out early on what kind of athletes both were. 

“They are confident in their abilities but aren’t arrogant and boastful,” Yockey said. “For what they have accomplished this year is truly outstanding – and I understand they are doing pretty well in baseball, too.”

Saturday’s Division 3 Regional at Adrian Madison was a milestone day for both. 

Shea won the 400 and was on the 1,600 relay unit that finished first. He also was second in the 100 and part of the 400 relay that came in second.

Ryin was part of both of those relays, plus the 800 relay that placed second – and was Regional champion in the 300 hurdles.

Together, they helped the Bobcats to the team title.

“Ryin’s 300 race really sticks out to me as he is such a competitor and driven to win,” Yockey said.

 The 1,600 relay of Shea Ruddy, Dylan Anderson, Ryin Ruddy and Jake Iott show off their latest trophy with Whiteford coach Jay Yockey after the Bobcats claimed their first Regional track & field team title since 2007. (Ryin took to the hurdles quickly.

“He’s really done quite well with working his hurdle form, attacking each race and winning,” Yockey said. “He currently is seeded seventh in the state in an event that usually takes a season or two to perfect.”

Ryin last ran track in the seventh grade. Shea ran that season as well, which was his eighth-grade year.

“We had high expectations, but I think we exceeded what we thought we would do,” Shea said of this spring. “It was really tough to start, but it’s gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten into the routine. I think it’s benefited me for both sports.” 

Shea started out the season competing in the high jump. About two weeks ago he gave the 400 a shot. He ended up winning the Regional in the event and is seeded second going into the Finals. 

The Hillsdale College football signee credits Coach Yockey with helping him get up to speed on what to do and not do on the track. 

“Coach Yockey helped me a lot. He got me into shape and told me where I needed to be with my times,” Ruddy said. “I kind of wish I would have done it in the past, but it’s all right. I think the years of experience would have paid off.”

Shea is the anchor on the 400 relay and leads off the 1,600 relay. The 1,600 unit holds the school record and had the fastest time of any 1,600 relay in Division 3 earlier this season.

“I knew adding Shea and Ryin would be a benefit for us,” said Yockey. “But, to go in and win a Regional title … that’s always the dream. The fact that we won a Regional title and will go to states with 12 scoring opportunities is definitely exciting. It exceeds my expectations from the start of the season.”

Whiteford had two other Regional champions Saturday – Keegan Masters won both the 1,600 and 3,200 and Stepan Masserant won the Pole Vault. The Regional title was Whiteford’s first since 2007, the same year the Bobcats won the school’s only track & field state championship.

It also comes just a year after Whiteford christened its new track and hosted its first home meet in more than a decade. Yockey said the new track helped ignite interest in the sport.

“Having a new track is huge,” he said. “Kids want to be a part of something they can be proud of, and kids weren’t proud of our track facility. I still hear upperclassmen joke about the gravel lane they had before I got here. 

“I think being able to host home meets, and a beautiful facility definitely helps in having kids come out and participate in track & field.”

Shea said he’s not surprised about the rapid rise of the Whiteford boys track & field team this season.

“I’m not shocked,” he said. “I knew we had the talent. We had to put it together, of course, and we’ve done that. I’m satisfied. I’m going to the states in four events. I can’t be disappointed with that.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Shea Ruddy (far left) takes the baton from brother Ryin during a relay this season. (Middle) The 1,600 relay of Shea Ruddy, Dylan Anderson, Ryin Ruddy and Jake Iott show off their latest trophy with Whiteford coach Jay Yockey after the Bobcats claimed their first Regional track & field team title since 2007. (Top photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; middle photo courtesy of the Whiteford boys track & field program.)