Team of the Month: Berrien Springs Boys Track & Field

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

June 29, 2022

With two elite standouts comparable to the best pairs on any team statewide, and a deep group of sprinters capable of scoring major points, Berrien Springs track & field coach Johnathan Rodriguez had a feeling this could be a special spring for his boys team.

He scheduled tougher for that possibility, and planned everything pointing toward the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final on June 4.

But Rodriguez didn’t breathe easily until that morning at Ada Forest Hills Eastern.  

“I think the whole month, I think I was on pins and needles thinking of everything that could go wrong or wondering if we were ill-prepared or if we didn’t run them enough,” Rodriguez said. “And then we got to the meet that day, and they were just fresh and jumping around and happy, and we’re loose. They did very well.”

Berrien Springs – the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for June – capped its season that day with its first MHSAA Finals boys track & field championship.

The title also was the first for the school in any sport since 2006, when the Shamrocks’ baseball team won the Division 3 title.

“We weren’t big on trying to win every meet. We were just thinking, all right, let’s try to be healthy for that state meet. So we were kind of smart in how we handled things and just scheduled things out so we can peek at the right moment,” Rodriquez said. “And I think it’s kind of a gamble that made us all uneasy, but they were just on fire that day.”

The boys track & field team had finished LP Division 3 runner-up in 2018, its highest Finals finish since coming in second in 1953. But with enrollment lines driving downward the last many years, Berrien Springs found itself it a much different spot beginning in 2021. The Shamrocks went from one of the largest schools in Division 3 to one of the smallest – the 11th-smallest of 155 teams this season – in Division 2.

Still, Berrien Springs received a strong indication it could compete with anybody this season when it ran at an invitational April 29 in Warsaw, Ind., against a number of larger Indiana schools include state power Carmel. Senior Jamal Hailey won the 100 and 200 meters, the 400 relay finished second, and senior James York was third in high jump as the Shamrocks hung with competition similar to the best they’d see in Michigan this spring.

Berrien Springs also possessed the right strengths to succeed in a championship format. The Shamrocks won their Regional by 37.5 points May 20 in part because the sprint group took nine top-eight places in the 100, 200 and 400 and won the 400 and 800 relays. The same formula worked as they won the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference championship meet the next week.

At the Finals at Forest Hills Eastern, Hailey won the 100 (10.77) and 200 (22.11) and York won the long jump (22-10). The 400 relay of senior Junyoung Chung, York, sophomore Jake Machiniak and Bailey won the 400 relay (42-44), and senior CJ Porter, Young, freshman Zander White and York placed eighth in the 800 relay (1:31.11). Freshman Noah Jarvis just missed scoring with a ninth place in the 400 (50.99).

With points spread out across several contenders, Berrien Springs’ 41 won the meet by eight.

Hailey finished the season undefeated in the 200 and with only one non-win in the 100, a runner-up finish at an early-season invitational. The 400 relay also was undefeated except for that second place in Indiana. York was undefeated in long jump except for finishing second in the Regional and league before coming back to win at the Finals. The 400 relay won every time he was a part.

Berrien Springs has had some recent success in other sports, particularly with Hailey leading a football team that went 10-1 last fall. This spring’s championship could be a catalyst for more Finals-level success in the near future across other sports.

“I hope so. I think that every kid that we had qualify (for the Finals) was a multi-sport athlete kid, and I think our 4x1(00) team, everybody on there was a three-sport athlete guy,” Rodriguez said. “Our athletic department works well, like our football guys lift with football two days a week and then come after track practice, so we have that nice working partnership with all the athletes.

“Now that we’ve shown that we can get there, I think it’s (shown) the kids at our school that hey, we can beat the bigger schools. We can hang. Track did it. Maybe we can do it next.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2021-22 

May: Houghton boys golf - Read
Plainwell girls soccer - Read
West Bloomfield girls basketball - Read
Cadillac girls skiing - Read
Hartland hockey - Read
Midland Dow girls basketball - Read
Reese girls volleyball - Read
Birmingham Groves boys tennis - Read

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for

April 10, 2024

Bob Branch remembers dabbling in other sports, but his first love was always running.

Mid-MichiganThe Hastings High School graduate admits he could never hit a baseball, football didn't especially appeal to him and basketball was just another way to spend time with friends. But for Branch, now 93, there was always track. That's the sport where his fondest and sharpest memories remain. And if you're talking track, many of his favorite memories come from participation in the state's oldest continuous track meet, the Hastings Relays.

Always held in early April, the meet dates back to 1937 – a bygone time that saw the first hostilities of World War II, gas at 20 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread selling for a dime.

And at a dusty old track surrounding the county fairgrounds in Hastings, a small relay event that included a scattering of participants from a dozen high schools was taking its first tentative steps.

Branch recalls a time when kids would run home after track practice because there were no buses, inexperienced young coaches had little actual knowledge of running fundamentals, and athletes looked at the sport as an afterthought after spending most of their high school days playing football and basketball.

The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago.For Branch, the relays were the ideal way to ease into the track season.

"I just liked to run," said Branch. "I remember I anchored a relay with my brother, and it always seemed cold when we had that meet. I remember teams would come from all over and you saw a lot of good athletes. Everybody seemed to have someone who was really good. Track wasn't very popular at that time, but I have a lot of good memories from running."

The Hastings Relays, which has changed formats and even names during its nearly nine-decade history, would traditionally kick off the track season. The meet was originally held at a makeshift quarter-mile track which surrounded the town's fairgrounds and was part of the city's annual Hastings Carnival – the track would become the midway during fair time.

The meet eventually moved to Johnson Field when the football field was dedicated in 1949 and ballooned to as many as 50 teams at its peak in 1957. For more than seven decades it was known as the Hastings Relays and then the Hastings Co-Ed relays before becoming the current Hastings Invitational, with the latest edition scheduled for Friday.

Johnson Field had a cinder track before it became an all-weather surface in the 1980s. During a time long before computers would be used to organize meet heats in mere minutes, Hastings coaches of all sports – defined as "volunteers" by the athletic department – would meet on the Friday before competition to hash out events.

People associated with the meet still recall the camaraderie built on those long Friday nights, followed by working what would often become 10-hour meets. Steve Hoke has been involved since watching his father, Jack, who coached teams at 15 of the meets beginning in 1951 and also had run in the first Hastings Relays. Steve Hoke later competed in the Relays as well during the early 1970s before becoming an assistant track coach, later the Hastings athletic director and now a volunteer worker.

"It was always a huge deal," said Hoke, who said the meet began as a pure relay event before transitioning to its current team format in the 1990s. "I remember we'd line the track the night before, and all the coaches would come to the house to organize everything. There was a brotherhood.”

Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s.If you quiz many of the fleet of volunteers who've worked the relays over the years, each has a different memory from the meet. While Hoke describes the brotherhood and Branch the outstanding competition, others remember weather and the time a thunderstorm wiped out the line markings on the cinder track, or waking up to find three inches of snow that caused a rare cancellation of the meet. Others recall the shock of moving from the cinder to all-weather track or using the meet as an early measuring stick of what it would take to qualify for the state meet. The real old-timers remember the meet disappearing for three years during World War II.

Hastings native and Western Michigan grad Tom Duits was the state’s second collegian to break the four-minute mile when he ran a 3:59.2 at a meet in Philadelphia in 1978. Duits, who ran in three Hastings Relays, was in line to join the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 before the United States pulled out of the games due to tension with Russia.

Duits has his own memories of the meet and the competition he faced there.

"I remember sunshine and being excited to be competing again. There were all these athletes swarming around; it was an awesome display of talent," he said. "It was always one of the best meets we'd be in. You could pretty much see the level of runners who would be at state, which made it a big deal. It was always early, but you could tell where you stood. It was great exposure."

Hastings track star Wayne Oom competed in four Hastings Relays from 1984-87. One of his sharpest memories was the difference between running on a raw cinder track versus the far more comfortable all-weather surface.

"Those cinders would grind into your skin," said Oom, part of the Hastings school record in the two-mile relay. "But I think it helped us because when we'd go to other tracks, it seemed we would run faster. I remember how competitive it was, especially in the distances. There were some great runners."

While participants have their unique memories, so do coaches. Former Saxons coach Paul Fulmer remembers 2008 when his team finished first on the boys side of the meet while his wife, Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, saw her girls team win the championship.

Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays."I knew we were one of the favorites to win because we were usually near the top of our conference and Regional," he said. "But then Katie's team was pretty good, and it was cool for them to win too."

Fulmer, who coached Hastings from 1978-81 and then 1985-2010, said at least part of the meet's popularity was derived from a unique way of scoring. Instead of individuals earning points solo, participants worked in pairs. For instance, two athletes would combine their shot put or long jump scores. New events such as the 1,500 relay and sprint medley were added.

"We had a tradition of being the state's oldest meet, and that was a big deal," Fulmer said. "And we ran a good relay; that attracted teams too. We took a lot of pride in that.

"And we'd get quite a lot of people to come to the meet. We'd set up until like 9 or 10 p.m., and then we'd have a party with all the coaches on Friday night."

While the meet has stretched 87 years, Branch said early participants and current runners have one thing in common: a drive to win. Branch ran in an era when the popularity of high school track was in its infancy. Today some of the best all-around athletes at a school are involved in the track program. The relays span the nearly nine decades in between.

"The quality of teams has gotten better and better," said Branch, the 1947 Lower Peninsula Class B Finals champ in the 220. "And this has made for a better meet. We would get guys who played football or baseball kind of drift into track, and that made the sport better. I think people began to appreciate track because we'd get teams from all over.

"We went from not really knowing what we were doing to track being a good sport. Even then, I'm not sure we appreciated what we had. We really liked the Hastings Relays and always wanted to do well there. It became popular and quite an honor to do well. Those are the kind of things I remember."

PHOTOS (Top) Racers run at the Hastings Relays, with several more awaiting their turns to compete at the longtime meet. (2) The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago. (3) Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s. (4) Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays. (Top photo by Dan Goggins, Hoke photo provided by Steve Hoke and Duits photos provided by Tom Duits.)