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

Aspirations High as Reigning Champion Hackett Vaults Into New Season

By Pam Shebest
Special for

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.

Southwest CorridorThe 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.

Clockwise from top left: Hackett head track & field coach Charissa Dean, Liam Mann, Germinder and Gavin Sehy. “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.”

Seeing potential

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.”

The Irish celebrate last season’s Finals championship, from left: Dean, Sehy, Logan St. Martin, Alex Dumont, Mitch Eastman, Nick Doerr and Germinder. 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 ShebestPam 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 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.)