Simply Put: Meridian Helps Athletes Showcase Athleticism, Become Champions

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

May 10, 2023

Mike Bilina’s strategy for success as the Sanford Meridian boys track & field coach is so simple, it almost seems absurd.

Bay & ThumbGet 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 CostanzoPaul 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.)

Red Devils Impress as Ironwood Honors Record-Setter with Jim LaBlonde Invitational

By John Vrancic
Special for

May 20, 2024

IRONWOOD — The Ironwood track & field teams provided themselves with an opportunity to do a victory lap on a very special Saturday earlier this month.

Upper PeninsulaBoth teams were crowned champions at the first Jim LaBlonde Invitational on May 11 on their 350-meter track during a sunny and mild afternoon.

The Ironwood girls scored 126 points, followed by Hurley, Wis., with 43, Ontonagon 37 and Watersmeet with 13. Ironwood’s boys collected 100 points, followed by Hurley at 84, Ontonagon 32 and Watersmeet with seven in a meet held in honor of the former Luther L. Wright High School star athlete who passed away due to an aneurysm on March 31, 2019.

LaBlonde, who was recently inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, was an all-Upper Peninsula football player and still holds school records in the 100 and 200-meter dashes from his senior year in 1997.

“This is very special to me personally,” Ironwood coach Cecilia Aho said. “Jim was a great person and athlete. I came to Ironwood from Argentina in December 2003 and know the family very well. I had some good conversations with Jim before he passed. This is a great tribute to him. It turned out to be a beautiful day. We had perfect weather and the kids from all four schools were smiling and having fun.

“Jim was well known in the community, not only as a coach, but as a parent. He was a phenomenal runner and football player.”

LaBlonde played football for three years at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and was on the school’s track team for a year while earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education in 2003.

He was a middle school teacher and coach in the Howard-Suamico District near Green Bay, Wis., at the time of his passing.

“He always asked about what was going on in Ironwood and was a good leader,” Aho said. “He would never turn his back on you when you asked him a question. The kids loved him. I wish I would have had a chance to work with him.”

The Ironwood teams take a photo together, at top, after sweeping the meets. Below, from left, LaBlonde’s brother-in-law Dave Lundin, sister Dena Lundin and parents Marlene and Jim LaBlonde attend the meet. Senior Aubrey Smith topped a field of four Ironwood runners in the 1600-meter run in 5 minutes, 55.69 seconds, followed by freshman Iyla Lagalo (6:54.08) and sophomore Aubrey Balduc (7:21.16).

Smith also won the 300 hurdles at 52.43, more than six seconds ahead of the rest of the field.

“It was nice to have everyone here,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have a home meet, especially on a Saturday. I think it’s a fun meet. It’s nice to know everyone here. I think this gives me a little momentum going into our remaining meets.”

Sophomore Emma Wardon was also a double winner for the Red Devils, taking shot put (32-11) and discus (87-0).

Ironwood sophomore Logan Holm took the 110 hurdles (20.17) and 300s (48.05), and Hurley had a triple-winner in junior Jeremiah Wallis, who captured the 100 (12.0), 200 (24.52) and long jump (17-3).

Watersmeet junior Thomas Carson won the 400 (54.06), five days after setting the school record (52.31) while placing second in the Welker Invitational at Ashland, Wis. (52.31).

“I strained my hamstring in Ashland,” he said. “It was a little windy up by the big lake (Superior) and there were a lot of good runners up there. I’m probably about 80-90 (percent), but everything went okay. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t overdo it. This is a nice little meet, especially for a Saturday.”

Ontonagon sophomore Violet Amos took the 200 (28.26) and 400 (1:02.03) and was runner-up to Hurley senior Jaana Aukee on a lean (13.65) in the 100.

“I’ve been in the 27s in the 200, but I’m very happy with my time in the 400” Amos said. “This being a little smaller track was probably a factor because the curves are a little tighter. I prefer to run a 400-meter track, although I like the running surface and competition.

“It’s always fun to come here. Our track is getting resurfaced. I’m looking forward to running on it the next couple years.”

Ontonagon coach Brian Amos said he also enjoys going to Ironwood.

“Ironwood runs a nice meet, and we get a chance to see Hurley,” he added. “It’s always nice to run against somebody different.”

John VrancicJohn Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

PHOTOS (Top) Ribbons and medals are set out to be awarded during the first Jim LaBlonde Invitational at Ironwood. (Middle) The Ironwood teams take a photo together, at top, after sweeping the meets. Below, from left, LaBlonde’s brother-in-law Dave Lundin, sister Dena Lundin and parents Marlene and Jim LaBlonde attend the meet. (Photos provided by the Ironwood Red Devil Booster Club.)