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.)

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.)