Mike Bilina’s strategy for success as the Sanford Meridian boys track & field coach is so simple, it almost seems absurd.
Get fast kids, and let them run. But also get good jumpers, and let them jump.
“We have some really good athletes that participate in track,” Bilina said. “We try to keep it as simple as we can, and let their athleticism show. … Basically go out there and just be a better athlete than everyone.”
That simplicity has worked wonders for Bilina and Meridian, as it not only helped the team win a pair of Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals championships in 2014 (with Dave Pettyplace as head coach) and 2016, but also has the Mustangs in a good position to do it again this year.
While there are more than 30 runners on the team, a core of five rank among the top two statewide in the division in five events and two relays. Another relay team ranks third. A team performance like that June 3 at Kent City would certainly be enough to take home a title.
“Knowing what I know now, it’s all dependent on a ton of variables,” Bilina said. “Some of those variables you can’t control, and some of them you can. Right now, we have a good chance of winning some hardware at the state meet. At the same time, we know it’s definitely not a given. We have to show up at the state meet, show up at the Regional. But we’re not going to let ourselves get in our own heads.”
Three seniors – Brayden Riley, Madix Saunders and Kenneth Emerson – and juniors Nick Metzger and Sawyer Moloy are leading the charge for the Mustangs.
Riley, Saunders, Emerson and Metzger makeup the 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter relays teams, which rank first, second and third in the division, respectively.
Metzger is the top long jumper in Division 3 so far this season with a leap of 22 feet, 4½ inches. He’s also second in the 400 meters with a time of 51.28 seconds.
Moloy is Division 3’s top-ranked high jumper at 6-7, while Riley is second in the 100 (11.02) and 200 (22.36).
It’s an impressive collection of talent, made more impressive by the fact that all are multi-sport athletes, and none have made track & field their main focus.
“Last year was my first year,” said Riley, an all-league quarterback who also plays basketball and came into high school with baseball as his spring sport. “They needed another leg for the (800 relay) because they wanted to win states back-to-back. I knew I would be quick, because I had shown it in football. But I didn’t know I was going to be state-time fast.”
For Riley, though, it’s about more than simply finding something else he does well.
“I think it’s pretty important (to play multiple sports),” he said. “I’ve been doing it for four years. It’s important to show that I care about my school and how we do.”
That fits Bilina’s strategy of simply getting athletes onto the track and letting them shine. The 2014 team won with a small core of multi-sport athletes, as did the 2016 team. Both of those actually had baseball players who also competed in track.
But it goes beyond just getting athletes. Bilina tries to keep things light and fun during his practices, which he’s found helps attract and retain those who are new to the sport. That, and they find they’re really good at it.
“I think once they get to experience a little bit of success, it’s contagious,” Bilina said. “They like to compete, and we found kind of their niche where they’re good at competing.”
Another plus to having athletes new to the sport is flexibility. Bilina said that because his runners and jumpers don’t come in as track specialists, they’re willing to try new events. Like Metzger, for instance, who hadn’t long jumped prior to this season.
“I did high jump all of last year, and I did OK in that,” Metzger said. “But then I injured my back really bad. The plan for this year was going to be hurdles or long jump, and in the first meet, my first jump, I jumped 21-4½. It kind of blew me out of the water.”
As teams hone in on the postseason, and the weather continues to get more favorable, it’s likely Meridian will see more competition pop up in the Division 3 rankings. But the Mustangs know that, and are more motivated by it than anything.
They’re hoping that motivation can combine with their athleticism to bring them the ultimate prize.
“Right now, where we’re standing, I think our chances are pretty high,” Metzger said. “I think we can definitely do it.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTO Sanford Meridian’s Brayden Riley makes his approach during the long jump at a home meet May 3 against Beaverton and Shepherd. (Photo courtesy of the Sanford Meridian boys track & field program.)
David Kozisek ♦ Pickford
Senior ♦ Track & Field
Kozisek was an exchange student from Czech Republic this school year, and when he returns home this week he'll do so having accomplished a rare feat in MHSAA track & field history. On Saturday he became the ninth male athlete to win four individual events at a Finals, taking first in the 110 hurdles (15.40), 300 hurdles (41.39), high jump (6-3) and long jump (20-10) in helping Pickford to the Upper Peninsula Division 2 team championship.
After also playing football and basketball for the Panthers, Kozisek joined the track & field team this spring with plenty of knowledge having competed in that sport over the last six years in his home country. He was incredibly close to leaving an even larger historical imprint last weekend; Kozisek's long jump and high jump both were just one inch off tying UPD2 Finals records, and his 110 time missed that meet record by only six hundredths of a second. He was the first to win four boys events with the combination of two hurdles races and two jumps, and the second four-time individual winner joining Joe Baker, who in 1974 became the first from any school to win four Finals events.
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