Blissfield's Smith Aims to Spring into More Long-Jumping Success

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

March 30, 2022

BLISSFIELD – The 2021 track & field season didn’t start the way Annabelle Smith had hoped, but it sure finished the way she wanted. 

Smith opened the season by long jumping only 15 feet, 5 inches, well short of her best. She bounced back quickly and never lost in the event again, culminating with a Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship in the event. 

“I think it was probably my worst day since middle school,” she said of last spring’s start. 

Those days are long behind her. As she prepares for her senior season, she is confident, mentally strong, and physically ready to beat the early spring Michigan weather. 

“It’s sort of hard for me because I much prefer warmer weather,” the Blissfield senior said. “Spring is my time to prepare. I try to give as much as I can.” 

Michigan’s weather doesn’t do prep athletes any favors this time of the year. But, Smith said, it’s something you have to set aside and push through. It’s part of being mentally strong and focused. 

“It’s something you can’t really control. You just have to deal with it.” 

Smith picked up track & field in middle school. Her coaches had all of the athletes try every event to see what they were best at. She immediately took to the long jump. She qualified for the Finals as a freshman and tied for eighth place in the long jump but missed out on being named all-state due to a tiebreaker.  

She trained hard for her sophomore year, only to have it canceled due to COVID-19. Last year she recovered from that early-season meet to win the Lenawee County championship, Lenawee County Athletic Association championship, Regional and Finals titles. She set a personal record at the LPD3 Finals meet with a jump of 18-1.5 and became Blissfield’s first female athlete to win a state track title in 30 years. 

“What sets her apart is her competitiveness and ability to adapt in any situation,” said Calvin Sullins, a former decathlete at Siena Heights University who now coaches Smith at Blissfield. “She trusts our process and is an exceptional student of the sport.” 

There was a time that Smith just went out, located her marks, and jumped.  

Blissfield track & fieldSullins and the rest of the Royals coaching staff turned her head by concentrating on technique. 

“Coach Sullins has a lot of knowledge about track in general,” she said. “It’s been great to work with him. Being a decathlete, he knows about every event.” 

One of the techniques she learned was to count steps rather than just look for her mark when starting to sprint as she approaches the long jump platform. 

“I use an 11-step approach,” she said. “I count 11 strides, and I lift off.” 

She counts down in her head every time her left foot hits the ground. 

“I jump when I’m at one,” she said. “I don’t have to worry where I’m at. It took a little bit to get used to, but it makes everything easier.” 

She has scratched on occasion, but she trusts in her ability to take equal strides and count the 11 steps during her approach. 

Being consistent in her events is her biggest challenge. She also takes pride in her mental approach to every event. There can be long breaks during a track meet, but she makes sure to get focused when she has to. 

“Mentally, I’ve changed a lot,” she said. “For me, what works is to be very involved with the team and not spend my down time thinking about my event. When I start to warm up, I just envision what my jumps are going to look like. That’s my time to myself, my time to get focused.” 

In between her junior and senior year of high school, she competed in a United States Track and Field Junior Olympic event in Atlanta, placing third in her division. She also had a national event in Florida. Closer to home, she entered some indoor meets in the open class in the area and trained whenever she found the opportunity to get out of the cold. 

“I just tried to stay consistent all winter,” she said. “For me, technique is very important.” 

Smith is looking at a few colleges, some nearby and some across the country. She’s undecided what she wants to do or where she wants to compete at the next level. 

This year she intends to compete in the 100 or 200 meters and possibly some relays as well as the long jump. Her goal is to start stronger than last year and steadily improve as the season goes on and be at her best come the first weekend in June – when the MHSAA Finals take place. 

“This year, my goal is to PR and get back to the state meet and place,” she said. “I have a lot of time to improve myself. That’s my main goal – to be better.”

Doug 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) Annabelle Smith, right, and credits her Blissfield coach Calvin Sullins with helping her become a championship long jumper. (Middle) Smith jumps during the 2019 Lenawee County Championships. (Top photo courtesy of the Smith family; middle photo by Mike Dickie.)

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 second 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.)