Coach Steve Zaranek started a Grosse Pointe South girls track and field program in 1980 that became both sizable and successful over its first three decades.
The near-simultaneous high school arrivals of some of the school’s top athletes of all-time then paved a track last season to the Blue Devils' first MHSAA championship.
But that title might've been just the start for this week’s Second Half High 5 team honoree.
The impressive performances of last spring – including all-MHSAA Finals records in the 1,600 and 800-meter runs by now-junior Hannah Meier – have been built upon during the first month of this season.
The finish that’s made the biggest headlines was a time of 8:59.69 in the 3,200 relay two weeks ago at Michigan State’s Spartan Invitational. That time would top the all-Finals record for that race by more than five seconds, and is just the latest from the elite Blue Devils talent tearing up the track.
“Every year we average well over 100 girls on the team – this year we have 125 girls – and we’ve always been a team that had tremendous depth,” Zaranek said. “We’ve won 18 of the last 20 Regionals on depth. But at the state meet, you must have elite runners. That’s been such a fortunate thing for us.”
The line-up starts with the Meier sisters. Grosse Pointe South edged runners-up Detroit Cass Tech and Ann Arbor Huron by four points each last season thanks in large part by Hannah’s records of 4:42.60 in the 1,600 and 2:07.37 in 800. She’s considered one of the top middle distance runners in the nation – with the Universities of Oregon, Notre Dame, Stanford, Washington, Michigan and Villanova University among those paying attention. Sister Haley Meier, also a junior this season, finished second in the 1,600 and third in the 800 at the 2011 Final, and her 1,600 time of 4:45.80 was the third-fastest in Finals history.
The Blue Devils graduated hurdler Veronica Schacht, who placed in both hurdles Finals, now runs at the University of Pittsburgh and according to Zaranek was the best hurdler in program history. But also back this season is senior Caitlin Moore – the program’s top sprinter ever who also will run on a 1,600 relay that has broken four minutes without her and went 3:53.78 to take fourth in Division 1 in 2011.
And then there are the newcomers. Sophomore Kelsie Schwartz and freshman Ersula Farrow joined the Meier sisters with top-15 individual finishes as the Blue Devils won the MHSAA Division 1 Cross Country Final in the fall, and make up the other half of the time-slashing 3,200 relay. Schwartz came from Warren Regina this school year after her family moved from St. Clair Shores to Grosse Pointe. Farrow is the latest in a speedy family line – her mother Tina (Jordan) won the mile run for Detroit Mumford at the 1980 Class A Final and then ran at Western Kentucky University. Father Erskine ran at the University of Tennessee, and older sister Christina Farrow was a senior this spring at Central Michigan University.
Without Schwartz and Ersula Farrow, the Blue Devils’ 3,200 relay still finished MHSAA runner-up last season with a time of 9:11.98.
“Kelsey got a really great start at Regina. Ersula has just gone beyond what we expected her to be,” Zaranek said. “We have run the last couple of years at the state meet really quality times, 9:09, 9:10. I knew we had the potential to shoot for that 9-minute mark, but what I really thought was that would happen at the end of the season.
“To get there when we got there at MSU was pretty special. There’s definitely the potential to run (faster) and even approach that 8:50 mark.”
Zaranek also has high postseason hopes for junior Aubryn Samaroo, whose high jump of 5-foot-6 this spring would’ve tied for third at the 2011 Final, and the Moore-anchored 400 and 800 relays among possible breakout contributors.
Grosse Pointe South will host its Division 1 Regional on May 18. All MHSAA Finals are June 2, with Division 1 at East Kentwood.
PHOTO: Grosse Pointe South's Hannah (front) and Haley Meier both finished among the top three in both the 1,600 and 800 at last season's MHSAA Division 1 Final.
BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City.
As she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore.
“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.
“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.”
Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team.
“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.”
Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.
Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled.
“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind.
“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said.
Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.
“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.
“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.”
Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness.
“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.”
Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season.
“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.”
Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor.
“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.”
The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear.
She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do.
“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.”
Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture.
“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.”
Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”
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) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)