Morenci Rallies to Support 3-Sport Standout

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

March 22, 2021

MORENCI – It would have been easy for Rodney Zimmerman to take a night off and no one would have thought twice.

But the three-sport athlete at Morenci High School in Lenawee County wouldn’t even consider it. Even while his mom was going through cancer treatments, battling COVID-19 and pneumonia, Zimmerman hit the weight room every morning, showed up for practice every afternoon and, now, has taken a step toward his dream of becoming a college athlete. 

Zimmerman committed this week to Saginaw Valley State University to run track.

“He’s just one of those kids that everyone rallies around,” said Morenci track and football coach Stefan Wilkinson. “He works really hard at everything he does. He goes all out, every time he’s on the court or field or track. He’s a very humble kid.”

Outside of his own community, few people were aware that his mother was going through cancer treatments in the fall, causing her to miss some of his games. Morenci rallied around the quiet senior.

“Everyone knew what was going on,” Zimmerman said, reluctantly. “Morenci is a small town. The parents and coaches were great to me. They would cook meals for us. That was really nice.

“Sports is a way for me to put that out of my mind,” he said. “I just go out and play the game. It is hard, but you have to do it. Football became my escape from all of that. That really helped. It wasn’t too hard to focus. Well, it was, but I just had to do it. I wanted to keep playing.”

Sports has been a part of his life since grade school. He grew up near Waldron in Hillsdale County and attended Pittsford until seventh grade when he moved schools and started going to Morenci. It was a good fit for him and the community.

His first interest was basketball, but he decided to pick up other sports as well.

“At first when I came here, I just played basketball, but I eventually picked up football and then track,” he said. “The coaches always told me it was good to play all of the other sports.”

Rodney ZimmermanHe’s a familiar face at Morenci events because he stands out in three sports. He also wears a signature headband.

Zimmerman was a running back for the Morenci football team in the fall, is a point guard for the Bulldogs basketball team as they head into next week’s Division 3 postseason, and he can’t wait to return to the track this spring. He’s a sprinter and a good one.

As a sophomore, Zimmerman finished second at the Tri-County Conference meet in both the 100 and 200 meters. At the Division 4 Finals, he placed fourth in the 100 and helped the Bulldogs 400 relay team place fourth as well. He also qualified in the 200. 

He likes how track is somewhat of an individual sport.

“I like all of the sports, but I like that in track I have total control,” he said. “The only one responsible for your performance is you. It’s all up to you.”

He missed his junior year of track due to the season being canceled because of COVID-19. 

“I was really disappointed that I missed my junior season because that’s a big season for recruitment,” he said. “I was thinking we were going to still have a season. I was working out and getting ready, then it was canceled. I was still lifting and trying to stay ready.”

He has goals for this season.

“I want to go to state again, and I want to be in the top three in my events,” he said.

He committed to Saginaw Valley State, a Division II college, after visiting the campus and finding out the Cardinals were able to give some scholarship money.

“They made the best offer,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to go to college. That’s been my plan. I want to do something in business, maybe own my own gym.”

College is still a while away. Right now, there is the District tournament looming for Morenci, then track season. His mother had a scan recently to find out where she stands with cancer.

For now, he’s happy to have her in the stands, watching him compete. The community continues to rally around him. His teammates do, too. During football season, Zimmerman and other players wore green on their shoes or wrist – a lime green ribbon promotes Lymphoma cancer awareness.

“It’s nice to have her watching again,” he said. “She missed some football games. She just had a pet scan last week to see if it is all gone. We are hoping for the best.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Morenci's Rodney Zimmerman sprints toward the finish of a preliminary race during the 2019 Track & Field Finals. (Middle) Zimmeran was named this winter's Homecoming king. (Top photo by; middle photo submitted.)

Red Devils Impress as Ironwood Honors Record-Setter with Jim LaBlonde Invitational

By John Vrancic
Special for

May 20, 2024

IRONWOOD — The Ironwood track & field teams provided themselves with an opportunity to do a victory lap on a very special Saturday earlier this month.

Upper PeninsulaBoth teams were crowned champions at the first Jim LaBlonde Invitational on May 11 on their 350-meter track during a sunny and mild afternoon.

The Ironwood girls scored 126 points, followed by Hurley, Wis., with 43, Ontonagon 37 and Watersmeet with 13. Ironwood’s boys collected 100 points, followed by Hurley at 84, Ontonagon 32 and Watersmeet with seven in a meet held in honor of the former Luther L. Wright High School star athlete who passed away due to an aneurysm on March 31, 2019.

LaBlonde, who was recently inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, was an all-Upper Peninsula football player and still holds school records in the 100 and 200-meter dashes from his senior year in 1997.

“This is very special to me personally,” Ironwood coach Cecilia Aho said. “Jim was a great person and athlete. I came to Ironwood from Argentina in December 2003 and know the family very well. I had some good conversations with Jim before he passed. This is a great tribute to him. It turned out to be a beautiful day. We had perfect weather and the kids from all four schools were smiling and having fun.

“Jim was well known in the community, not only as a coach, but as a parent. He was a phenomenal runner and football player.”

LaBlonde played football for three years at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and was on the school’s track team for a year while earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education in 2003.

He was a middle school teacher and coach in the Howard-Suamico District near Green Bay, Wis., at the time of his passing.

“He always asked about what was going on in Ironwood and was a good leader,” Aho said. “He would never turn his back on you when you asked him a question. The kids loved him. I wish I would have had a chance to work with him.”

The Ironwood teams take a photo together, at top, after sweeping the meets. Below, from left, LaBlonde’s brother-in-law Dave Lundin, sister Dena Lundin and parents Marlene and Jim LaBlonde attend the meet. Senior Aubrey Smith topped a field of four Ironwood runners in the 1600-meter run in 5 minutes, 55.69 seconds, followed by freshman Iyla Lagalo (6:54.08) and sophomore Aubrey Balduc (7:21.16).

Smith also won the 300 hurdles at 52.43, more than six seconds ahead of the rest of the field.

“It was nice to have everyone here,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have a home meet, especially on a Saturday. I think it’s a fun meet. It’s nice to know everyone here. I think this gives me a little momentum going into our remaining meets.”

Sophomore Emma Wardon was also a double winner for the Red Devils, taking shot put (32-11) and discus (87-0).

Ironwood sophomore Logan Holm took the 110 hurdles (20.17) and 300s (48.05), and Hurley had a triple-winner in junior Jeremiah Wallis, who captured the 100 (12.0), 200 (24.52) and long jump (17-3).

Watersmeet junior Thomas Carson won the 400 (54.06), five days after setting the school record (52.31) while placing second in the Welker Invitational at Ashland, Wis. (52.31).

“I strained my hamstring in Ashland,” he said. “It was a little windy up by the big lake (Superior) and there were a lot of good runners up there. I’m probably about 80-90 (percent), but everything went okay. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t overdo it. This is a nice little meet, especially for a Saturday.”

Ontonagon sophomore Violet Amos took the 200 (28.26) and 400 (1:02.03) and was runner-up to Hurley senior Jaana Aukee on a lean (13.65) in the 100.

“I’ve been in the 27s in the 200, but I’m very happy with my time in the 400” Amos said. “This being a little smaller track was probably a factor because the curves are a little tighter. I prefer to run a 400-meter track, although I like the running surface and competition.

“It’s always fun to come here. Our track is getting resurfaced. I’m looking forward to running on it the next couple years.”

Ontonagon coach Brian Amos said he also enjoys going to Ironwood.

“Ironwood runs a nice meet, and we get a chance to see Hurley,” he added. “It’s always nice to run against somebody different.”

John VrancicJohn Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

PHOTOS (Top) Ribbons and medals are set out to be awarded during the first Jim LaBlonde Invitational at Ironwood. (Middle) The Ironwood teams take a photo together, at top, after sweeping the meets. Below, from left, LaBlonde’s brother-in-law Dave Lundin, sister Dena Lundin and parents Marlene and Jim LaBlonde attend the meet. (Photos provided by the Ironwood Red Devil Booster Club.)