Saugatuck Speedster Aiming for Historic Performance
By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com
May 12, 2021
SAUGATUCK -- Saugatuck boys track & field coach Rick Bauer frequently tosses out a nickname for one of his elite runners.
Benny “The Jet” Diaz, a junior sprinter, has definitely lived up to the moniker.
“I don’t remember who gave me that nickname, but coach Bauer uses it a lot,” Diaz said. “I don’t mind it, and it refers to Benny and the Jets or from the movie Sandlot.”
Wherever it came from, it fits, as Diaz has turned up the jets this spring on the track and blossomed into one of the fastest runners and hurdlers in the state.
Whether it’s in the sprints (100, 200 or 400 meters) or the hurdles (110 and 300), Diaz possesses blazing speed and athleticism.
“He’s fast, and he was born with some talent for sprinting, but his real talent is just how hard he works at it,” Bauer said. “I don’t think people understand that this is a 365-day thing for Benny and his dad working on speed.”
As a freshman, Diaz placed third in the 300 hurdles at the MHSAA Division 4 Finals and helped his team place second overall.
He worked hard for another opportunity to shine in his sophomore season, but it was wiped out due to COVID-19.
“It was pretty tough, and just not being able to compete was not fun,” Diaz said.
Diaz would have to wait another year, and now his training and intense drive to succeed is coming to fruition.
Entering this week, Diaz has posted the fifth-fastest time in the state in the 100 after running a personal-best 10.85 seconds at last week’s Shepherd Invitational.
He’s ranked No. 2 in the 110 hurdles (14.86) and in the top 20 in the 200 dash and 300 hurdles.
For Diaz, who also excels in football and baseball, track was somewhat of an afterthought before learning of his potential.
“In sixth grade it was something to fill my time and get faster for football and baseball,” he said. “But once I was in middle school, I started seeing results and it just became more fun and I was getting better every meet.
“I started doing indoor track and competed in the winter and spring and started getting a lot better. It’s become a job a little bit to try and get myself faster, stronger and better throughout the season.”
Diaz’s dad, Mario, has been instrumental in his son’s success. He also serves as the team’s sprint coach.
“He’s definitely helped by pushing me, and we study some things together,” Diaz said. “How to get a better block start, and how to strengthen my legs to get quicker and explosive. He spends a lot of his time with me working on those kinds of things, so I’m pretty appreciative of him.”
Diaz also travels outside of the area and state to compete in various events.
He thrives off the challenges he faces from racing against runners with similar abilities.
“It’s been fun going up against better competition,” Diaz said. “I run faster with competition because sometimes always winning isn’t too fun. Competition is always fun, even if you lose sometimes, and it’s just still fun going up against people who are the same or better.”
While Diaz simply enjoys competing, some events stand out from the others.
“The 200 is fun because I can come off the curve and just run people down,” he said. “I go past them and then separate on the straightaway. The 100 has been good to me, running under 11 (seconds), and the 400 is fun, but it hurts.”
Diaz has lofty goals for this year’s Finals, which will take place June 5 in Hudsonville.
The only decision now is deciding which events he’s going to run.
“It’s no secret what we’re going after,” Bauer said. “He wants to win four individual events, and that’s what we’re going to try and do.
“It’s just a matter of which events he’s going to do. Everyone has their own opinions, but we’re getting there. It’s a major goal to try and win four, so let’s do something that very few have done.”
Only eight athletes – and only two from the Lower Peninsula – have won four individual events at an MHSAA Boys Track & Field Finals.
Said Diaz: “I want to win all four of my events, and we will try to figure out what’s best to get all 40 points and get the best times I can before summer track.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Saugatuck's Benny Diaz outpaces the competition in a sprint during a recent meet. (Middle) Diaz also excels at both hurdles races. (Photos by Dean Holzwarth.)
Aspirations High as Reigning Champion Hackett Vaults Into New Season
By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com
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.
The 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.
“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.”
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.”
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)