By Butch Harmon
Special to Second Half
COMSTOCK PARK – The Sanford Meridian baseball team was down a man Saturday as it worked its way to a District title.
Senior Jacob Wenzlick was busy on the other side of the state, helping the Sanford-Meridian boys track and field team win the championship at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals.
Wenzlick was a member of three winning relay teams for the victorious Mustangs. He also is a member of the Mustangs baseball team and had a pair of hits in the District opener earlier in the week.
But the lure of a lofty finish at the Track and Field Finals had him on the track Saturday afternoon.
“This was just nuts,” Wenzlick said. “We didn't even win our conference or our Regional. To win a state championship is incredible.”
That Sanford-Meridian was in a position to win was pretty incredible.
Wenzlick was not the only assist the Mustangs’ track team received from the baseball team. Senior Dan Johnson, who played baseball last season, broke his wrist before the season this spring. Unable to play baseball, he decided to come out for the track team.
On Saturday, Johnson found himself running a leg on the 1,600 relay team that not only won but set a meet record in the process.
“This is my first year of running track, and it was awesome,” Johnson said.
The track team received an even bigger assist from the Sanford-Meridian basketball team. Seniors Kevin Scheibert and Jacob Ham are first-year runners and members of the basketball team. They were busy in previous springs playing travel basketball together to prepare for the next season.
But with their high school basketball careers finished, the duo was talked into coming out for the track team by Sanford-Meridian coach Dave Pettyplace.
Scheibert and Wenzlick stepped in to open vacancies on the 400, 800 and 1,600 relay teams and helped all three squads win championships Saturday.
“We had three guys who were in their first year running track,” Pettyplace said. “They were part of three relay teams that took first place and that was a big key.”
Another big key was a fifth-place performance from Ham in the 200-meter run. Seeded eighth, Ham told a teammate he was going to take it easy in the 200 to save himself for the 1,600 relay at the end. His teammate let him know that those points in the 200 would be key for the team, and Ham changed his game plan.
“Those points were pretty important,” Ham said. “I had the mile relay after that and I wasn’t going to try very hard, but when I was told we needed those points, I ran as hard as I could.”
A feeling he and Scheibert would not have enjoyed had it not been for his coaches’ recruiting efforts.
“Coach has always talked to me about coming out for track,” Ham said.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Scheibert said. “This was the first year for the two of us. We just came out for the fun of it never realizing we would get in this position.”
For New Haven junior Josh Harris, the Finals were a very special occasion. Not only did Harris win the 110 hurdles in a personal-best time of 14.96, but he also celebrated his 17th birthday.
“This has been a goal of mine since my freshman year,” Harris said. “I also made a promise to my deceased coach, coach Rob who coached me as a freshman, that I would do this for him. Doing this on my birthday just adds the icing on the cake.”
Harris just missed qualifying as a freshman and last season he did not run track as he played travel basketball instead.
“Once the race began I felt very loose and confident, “Harris said. “I had no nervousness at all.”
Union City junior Aaron Watson also missed out on the Finals last year. Watson suffered a torn hamstring early last season and was never at full strength.
Healthy this year, Watson not only made it but won the 100 dash in a personal-best time of 10.9.
“As a freshman I made it to state but I was knocked out in the prelims,” Watson said. “Last year in the first meet of the season I tore my hamstring. At the beginning of this season my goal was just to qualify for state. As the season went on I started setting my goals higher and higher.
“I came out of the blocks real good. The leaders kind of bunched up in the middle of the race, but then I pulled away at the end. I started strong and finished strong today.”
Thanks to some help from his teammate, Niles Brandywine senior Andrew Duckett came away with a championship in the 300 hurdles. Duckett turned in a winning time of 39.1 while his teammate, senior Nathan Anders, placed third.
“Finishing in the top three together is a big deal for us,” Duckett said. “It is so helpful having a teammate like Nathan. He pushes me in practice every day. Most teams don’t have that luxury.”
Almont sophomore Jacob Battani picked a good time to make a big improvement. Battani won the pole vault with a vault of 13-9, a nine-inch improvement over his previous personal record.
“I had a better invert today, and that was something I was working on all week in practice,” Battani said. “I’m really excited and happy. I was just hoping to make it to state this year. I was not expecting to finish first.”
Hopkins junior high jumper Quincy Collings went out for track for the first time last season. One year later he not only made it to the Finals but he won the high jump with a leap of 6-9, three inches better than his previous record.
“I’ve been working on my technique a lot lately,” Collings said. “I was told to back up when the height goes up to get over the bar, and I’m happy with the result. My goal was to clear 6-8 and finish in the top three.”
PHOTO: Sanford Meridian's Jacob Wenzlick carries the baton for one of his team's relays. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
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.)