By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
Ability alone won’t get it done on the track.
That’s why the transformation of the Mancelona boys track & field team didn’t happen until the Ironmen added confidence to their talent.
“I always thought they could do it,” said Rick Ancel, Mancelona’s head coach. “I always thought we had a lot of talent. They just didn’t believe in themselves, and they ran mediocre. Once they started believing, the workouts changed. The times changed. There are very few people they are afraid of. They get beat on certain days, but they don’t beat themselves up. I think before this change they were afraid before they ever got on the track.”
Since they’ve developed some faith in themselves the Ironmen have been a force to be reckoned with, running undefeated through every regular-season invitational they competed in last year on the way to capturing the Ski Valley Conference title. With most of its squad returning this season, Mancelona has continued to dominate meets and figures to be a shoo-in to capture the league crown for a second straight year when the conference championships are run May 22. The squad has been so impressive that it earned a No. 6 ranking in the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Division 3 poll two weeks ago.
“It’s kind of hard to think about (being ranked) because a couple years ago we weren’t even winning our conference let alone being ranked at the state level,” said junior Johnny Ancel, one of the team’s three captains, along with classmates Tommy Palmer and Wesley Fulk.
Members of the team or coaching staff point to when Rick Ancel took over as head coach before last year as the pivotal moment when the Ironmen’s outlook, preparation and performance all changed. Ancel, who ran collegiately at Saginaw Valley State, deflects the credit back to his team and its willingness to do what it takes to find success.
“I do remember during the year that the workouts started changing,” said Rick Ancel. “They started going from trying to complete a workout because they had to run that much to trying to improve. Instead of just getting through it, they were doing the workout to get better.”
The fruits of their labor paid off in the form of the league crown, a fifth-place finish in the Regional — which came in their first year competing in Division 3 — MHSAA Finals qualifiers in three events and a school record in the 1,600-meter relay.
“At the end of last year I was feeling pretty good,” said Fulk. “We were only losing two of our (top) people, so the majority of our team was still going to be here. I knew we were going to be better than last season.”
The Ironmen haven’t disappointed. In an indoor meet at Central Michigan University in mid-March, the Ironmen kicked off their season by finishing second among Division 3 and 4 teams, easily surpassing their 11th-place finish a year ago. They followed that by winning their first five regular-season meets outside. Only a second-place finish at the Blue Devil Classic in Gaylord — where Mancelona tested itself against Division 1 and 2 teams — broke up the streak of regular-season first-place finishes that started early last season.
“This year we added some big meets,” said Rick Ancel. “We really tried to ramp up our competition this year.”
Ancel’s veteran squad has welcomed the tougher competition. It’s a core of athletes who individually have the versatility to fill in at a number of different events and compete at a high level. The three captains, for instance, can run any event from the 100-meter dash up to the 800-meter run.
“We can try more people in different spots,” said Fulk.
It comes down to doing whatever the team needs at a particular meet. Even though track & field is in many ways an individual sport, the Ironmen see it from a team standpoint and embrace that perspective.
“We always start every meet and end every meet together as a team,” said Palmer. “You can’t do it alone, obviously. You can’t win a meet with just us three who are here or just one of us.”
Two years ago the Mancelona team had only 11 members. Depth is not an issue any longer, however, as the Ironmen have bolstered their roster and now have nearly every event covered. Sophomore Ryan Rebh is ranked among the best hurdlers in the state in Division 3. Sophomore Jayden Alfred is the reigning Regional champion in the high jump and long jump and has emerged as the team’s top sprinter this season. Sophomore distance runner Tyler McClure is a Finals qualifier in the 3,200-meter run. Junior Michael Wagner is one of the better discus throwers in the Ski Valley Conference. James Dunne, Ben Palmer, Sam Squires and Austin Anderson have been key point scorers as well.
Mancelona also has four top-notch relays — all four should be favored to win conference crowns — highlighted by the 1,600 team. Ancel, Tommy Palmer and Fulk all return for that squad and have their sights set on breaking the school record for a second straight year.
“We’re just trying to find the right day where we all run fast at the same time,” said Johnny Ancel. “We could probably break it again right now. We just haven’t found the day.”
Records aside, the Ironmen seem to have the lineup that could challenge for a Regional title. Mancelona’s last Regional championship came in 2012, but that was in Division 4. Running in Division 3 is a bit more difficult, the Ironmen say, but they are up for the challenge.
“Harbor Springs was (in Gaylord), and they’re in our division. They’re really good. We’ll meet them again at Regionals,” said Rick Ancel. “That will be a tough day for us, but I think we’ve got a shot at winning that.”
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Mancelona’s Ryan Rebh leads the charge through the 110-meter hurdles during a recent meet. (Middle) Jayden Alfred launches during the long jump. (Photos by Chris Dobrowolski.)
Bradley Richards believes that life is all about trying new things, setting bigger goals and pushing yourself to new heights – in his case, literally.
Richards, now a 6-foot-5, 190-pound junior basketball standout at tiny Fruitport Calvary Christian, played on the school’s fifth-grade team when he was in second grade.
He remembers staring longingly at the rim in those days and dreaming about dunking, before making that dream a reality by throwing one down in February of his seventh-grade year.
While his three older sisters - Taylor, Allyson and Kelsey - were leading the Calvary girls basketball program to new heights, he vowed he would do the same with the boys program someday.
Bradley and his teammates accomplished that goal last spring, winning the school’s first boys District basketball title despite a roster with no seniors.
This season, Calvary came flying out of the gate with a 5-0 start and is now 5-2 heading into Friday’s home game against Saugatuck.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Bradley, who averages 29 points and 14 rebounds per game. “Our school is so small that we’re more like a family. It’s not about me. I’m just so happy for our school and all of the guys on the team.”
The next goal is to repeat as District champions and try to win a Regional title, before setting his sights at clearing 7 feet in the high jump this spring.
“I’m going to try to get past that this year,” said Bradley in his typical humble, matter-of-fact fashion.
One thing his father and fourth-year Fruitport Calvary Christian boys basketball coach Brad Richards has learned is to not put anything past his only son, the youngest of his four children.
Bradley displayed an interest in music as a young boy and now sings in the school’s worship group and plays the saxophone, piano and guitar. Last fall, he played high school football for the first time as part of a cooperative agreement with Muskegon Catholic Central and wound up starting at wide receiver and defensive back for the state powerhouse program.
“He’s blessed and he’s gifted – yes,” said his father, who also coached all three of his girls during their Calvary Christian basketball careers. “But he works so hard.
“Bradley sets goals and works toward them. He’s always looking for the next thing to do.”
True to his school
One thing he doesn’t like to do is media interviews. Specifically, he doesn’t like calling attention to himself.
“He is pretty quiet and would rather have his teammates get the attention,” said his mother, Joy.
Fruitport Calvary Christian is one of the smallest schools on the entire Lakeshore with 51 students in grades 9-12, and just 17 boys in the high school.
The Eagles take great pride in their ability to compete against much larger schools. They made a huge statement during the first full week of December with three convincing victories over bigger schools.
That week started on Tuesday, Dec. 5, with Calvary’s first-ever boys basketball win over neighbor Fruitport, a Division 2 school that competes in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue. Bradley scored 35 points with 14 rebounds in that game, with clutch free throws by role player Eric Dubois Quayle sealing the win.
Two days later, Richards scored 36 points with 17 rebounds in a win over Grand Rapids Sacred Heart.
Calvary then capped the 3-0 week Friday with a victory over Kent City, another Division 2 school, as Bradley scored 36 points with 18 rebounds.
Calvary is led by the “big three” of juniors Richards and Quinn Swanson and senior Sam Zelenka. Swanson, the team’s second-leading scorer with 17 points plus six rebounds and three assists per game, injured his knee last week against Schoolcraft and his health will have a huge bearing on the team’s success going forward. Zelenka is the top defender and averages 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
The other starters are junior workhorse Zach McFarren, who owns the school’s shot put and discus records and has played all but six minutes over the team’s seven games, and senior Nolan Ghezzi.
Richards, already a two-time Associated Press all-state selection who even made the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan all-state team as an eighth grader, has seen every gimmick defense to try and shut him down, including box-and-twos and triple teams. He credits his experience in football and track with helping him deal with it.
“There is usually a quick guy in front of me and a big guy behind me,” said Bradley, who scored a career-high 47 points in a game last season. “Football has really helped me, because I’m not as scared of the contact. The high jumping has helped me to elevate and get my shot off.”
Jim McHugh is a high jump legend from Pentwater who went on to become a two-time national champion in the event at Hillsdale College, and he now coaches West Michigan athletes in the event.
The first time he worked with Bradley Richards, in April of last year, he knew he had something special on his hands.
“Bradley went up and literally hurdled the bar at 5-11,” said McHugh. “I was in shock. I said to myself: ‘This is gonna be a heck of a ride.’ The kid is a generational talent.”
The coaching of McHugh paid immediate dividends, as Bradley improved from a top jump of 6-1½ as a freshman to 6-6½ in last year’s Regional meet. Then came the Division 4 Finals at Hudsonville a few weeks later.
Bradley won the first track Finals championship for Fruitport Calvary with a leap of 6-10 – which was 3 inches higher than anyone else in any of the four Lower Peninsula divisions and entire Upper Peninsula that day – and caught the attention of college scouts from across the country.
The following week, he competed at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Philadelphia and placed second with a jump of 6-8.24.
McHugh shudders to think of how high his prodigy can soar. He has his sights set on the Division 4 Finals record of 6-10½ (Kurt Schneider, Auburn Hills Oakland Christian, 2009), the Muskegon-area record of 7-0 (Steve Paulsen, Fremont, 1998) and the all-division/class Finals record of 7-1 (John Payment, Brimley, 1989).
“God has given him incredible talent, but he also has the desire it takes,” said McHugh, who is also working with another Division I college high jump prospect in Hart junior Addison Hovey. “I gave him a workout plan, and he has done every bit of it. He has cleaned up his diet, done the cold showers and the cold bathtubs, everything. I’m excited to see the results.”
Richards, whose first love was basketball, admits he is smitten with the high jump and seeing how high he can soar.
Now, when asked about his favorite athletes, he still mentions Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant, but he also includes Olympic gold medalist high jumper Mutaz Barshim of Qatar – who made news by not taking additional jumps at the 2020 Olympics in Japan, thereby sharing the gold medal with Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy.
“I just respect that so much, sharing the gold medal,” Bradley said.
Now the Bradley Richards recruiting saga has begun and, for him, it’s not just about choosing what school – it’s also about choosing what sport.
“I would like to do both, play basketball and high jump in college, if possible,” Bradley said.
That would certainly be a possibility if Bradley follows in his family’s footsteps at Cornerstone University. His father was a basketball standout at Cornerstone, which is where he met Joy, and all three of his sisters played for the Golden Eagles. (Kelsey is currently a student assistant for this year’s team.)
Playing both may not be possible if he pursues high jump at the Division I level, where Michigan and Illinois are among schools actively recruiting him.
“I know at some point I’m going to have to make a decision, but I don’t have to right now,” said the 17-year-old Bradley. “So it doesn’t do me any good to sit and stress about it all the time.”
Instead, he is focused on more immediate goals.
The first is figuring out a way for his basketball team to snap a two-game losing skid and get positioned for another postseason run.
Then it will be trying to clear the magical high jump number of 7-0, and beyond. And don’t forget football, where he would love to start off his senior year by helping Muskegon Catholic improve on its 6-5 record from a year ago and make a run at the school’s 13th state football championship.
Only after all of that will it be college decision time.
“It’s not an easy choice, and it will take a lot of prayer and discernment,” admitted Richards, who will look for help from his immediate family and his school family in making his choice. “I’ll figure it out. I usually do.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Fruitport Calvary Christian’s Bradley Richards stands atop the podium after winning the high jump last spring at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals. (Middle) Richards lines up to shoot a free throw. (Below) Playing as part of a cooperative with Muskegon Catholic Central, Richards works to get away from a Traverse City St. Francis tackler. (Track photo courtesy of Joy Richards; basketball and football photos courtesy of Local Sports Journal.)