By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
While other kids have basketball hoops in their driveways, Cullen Prena and his sisters have a discus ring.
“I wish,” Cullen said Wednesday when asked if it was so.
You won’t find shot put craters in the family's lawn either.
But drive past the Prenas’ home when his sisters are home from college, and there’s a chance you’ll catch the Walled Lake Central junior and his Big Ten thrower siblings, Kari (University of Michigan) and Kelsey (Michigan State), talking over their craft.
“My sisters got me into it,” Cullen said. “It was a random summer day, and they were going to Central to throw. They asked me if I wanted to go with, and I said ‘Sure.’
“Ever since then I’ve been all into it. It’s basically taken over my life.”
Those first tosses came in the summer before Prena entered seventh grade. Five years later, he’s making a bid to go down as Michigan’s top high school thrower of all-time.
The fifth-place finisher in discus at last season’s MHSAA Division 1 Final Meet, Prena quickly has established himself as a heavy favorite this spring. He receives a Second Half High 5 this week after throwing an incredible 187 feet, 7 inches to win discus at Saturday’s Oxford Invitational, on top of also winning the shot put with a toss of 52-1.
Earlier in April, Prena topped 180 feet in discus two more times, in the process breaking both his school and then the Oakland County records that had both stood for at least 29 years according to a report by the Oakland Press.
And here’s the kicker: Prena’s top discus throw last season was a solid – but compared to now, mere – 159-9.
“His increase over the course of time, the average spectator can’t see it. But from sixth grade, he’s been training,” said Walled Lake Central boys track coach Nebojsa Stojkovic, who also works with the team’s throwers.
“You know how to gauge kids based on worth ethic and what their bodies are able to do. When freshman year he threw 144 feet, I knew the talent that was coming up.He’s got God-given ability that’s different from everyone else.”
That combination has made Prena something to behold this season.
His work ethic has benefited him with an increase in strength, evidenced by 30-40 percent improvements in all of his weight room lifts over the last year. Prena formerly played football, basketball and baseball, but decided to focus solely on weight training for track this school year in part after tearing a meniscus during his sophomore football season.
And then there’s two natural gifts for a thrower – Prena is double-jointed, allowing him increased flexibility for a stronger whip motion on his discus tosses. He also gets additional power from a wingspan that measures longer than his 6-foot-2 height.
He threw well at indoor competitions during the winter, and was tossing the discus consistently in the 170s when outdoor practice began this spring. In his team’s first meet, against White Lake Lakeland, he threw the discus 177 and then a best of 184-7, and also tossed the shot put 52-10 – more than three feet better than his previous outdoor personal-best in the latter event.
“It was hard to sleep (at night) after a meet when you throw a great throw like that,” Prena said.
Aside from some tires during workouts, Prena hasn’t tried tossing other heavy objects. “Other than my parents and my sisters; that’s about it,” he said, joking, of course.
But he's in serious pursuit of the MHSAA Finals record for discus. Prena’s best toss this season would’ve won every MHSAA Final dating back to 2003 and all seven of last season’s Finals (four Lower Peninsula, three Upper) by at least a foot.
That Finals record of 197-11 belongs to former Portage Northern standout Joey Sarantos, who set it in 2001. Prena must improve another 11 feet – which seems like a logical next step after this spring's gigantic 28-foot jump.
“Last year’s state meet ... didn’t quite go the way I wanted it to, and it’s been in the back of my mind since then,” Prena said. “Coming off of weight training, I kinda expected (the improvement). But you don’t know until you see the stuff. And then I started realizing it, and it was setting in that this is real. This is ridiculous."
PHOTOS: (Top) Walled Lake Central's Cullen Prena warms up before the discus throw that would break the Oakland County record. (Middle) Prena surveys the scene before another discus toss. His best this season is 187-7. (Photos courtesy of Walled Lake Central and David Mexicotte.)
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.)