Track Champ Eager for Next Challenge

June 30, 2020

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Aiden McLaughlin’s high school run got cut short, so now it’s time for him to fly.

McLaughlin, who recently graduated from Morley Stanwood High School, was one of thousands of Michigan high school seniors who lost out on their final spring season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That meant he never got to attempt to repeat his 2019 Division 3 Finals championship in the 800-meter run.

“That was definitely a major goal to try and defend that title,” said McLaughlin, who won that race at Zeeland Stadium with a time of 1:55.1. “But I was really looking forward to being with my teammates for my senior year – seeing how well we could do in our relays and things like that. That was more disappointing for me than the personal stuff.”

McLaughlin never slowed down throughout the lockdown this spring, instead using the time to get physically and mentally prepared for his next challenge. This week, he started his freshman year as a fourth class cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

He was on his way to a District basketball game in March when he learned that he had been accepted into the Air Force Academy, a nomination which has been a huge source of pride for the close-knit Morley community.

“We are all so happy for Aiden and can’t wait to see everything he does from here,” said Michele Young, who recently retired after 32 years of coaching track at Morley Stanwood. “He sets high expectations for himself, and he usually reaches them. He has the heart and mind and soul of a champion.”

Young has coached some great athletes over her 32 years, including Travis McCuaig, who won back-to-back Division 3 Finals championships in the high jump in 2012 and 2013. However, Young said she has never coached a high school athlete as self-motivated and self-disciplined as McLaughlin.

Not that she is entirely surprised.

Young coached both of his parents, Amanda (Bush) McLaughlin and Curtis McLaughlin, who were standout runners and high school sweethearts at Morley in the mid-1990s.

“They were both amazing athletes as well,” Young recalled. “Mandy was a distance runner and Curtis was more of a sprinter; he was very fast. I tell Aiden he is a combination of them. That’s why he can run anything from the 200 to the 2-mile.”

McLaughlin, who was also a four-time all-stater in cross country, excelled most in high school in the 800 meters and also has posted personal bests of 4:24.6 in the 1,600 and 52.3 in the 400.

Getting accepted into the Air Force Academy was a goal for McLaughlin since he attended a running camp there during the summer following his freshman year.

“I loved everything about it, and I made up my mind that I was going to do everything I could to get in there,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin put together quite an impressive resume over his four years of high school, notably earning all-state honors in all three of his sports: cross country, basketball and track. He was also a member of the school’s robotics team, National Honor Society and the Mecosta County Youth Advisory Committee. He waded through the lengthy process of applying to the Air Force Academy; he was nominated by John Moolenaar, the representative of Michigan’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While most people go to the Air Force to fly, the 18-year-old McLaughlin is going there to run – at least at first. He will compete on the indoor and outdoor track teams, while pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering or astronomical engineering.

McLaughlin said he is nervous and excited, “but definitely more excited than nervous.”

“I like anything that’s a challenge to me,” McLaughlin explained. “Honestly, my biggest goal right now is just to graduate from the Air Force Academy. I know if I do that, I will have a lot of opportunities.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Morley Stanwood’s Aiden McLaughlin will continue his academic and running careers at the U.S. Air Force Academy. (Middle) McLaughlin breaks away during the 2019 Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals 800-meter run. (Photos courtesy of Morley Stanwood athletics.)

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 first 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.)