By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
There’s a clear difference between prediction and expectation. But the Ithaca girls track & field team had to decide which way coach Gene Lebron was leaning when he told his athletes they’d win an MHSAA championship this spring.
Lebron had called his cross country team’s 2014 championship as well – and that gave this spring’s Yellowjackets plenty of faith in their coach’s fearless forecast.
Ithaca’s girls track & field team – the Applebee’s Team of the Month for May – dominated its Tri-Valley Conference West competition at last month’s league meet and also won its Division 3 Regional for the second straight year – and second time total in program history.
and it’s impossible to overlook what the Yellowjackets then accomplished four days after May ended – win the first MHSAA Finals championship in program history, scoring 57½ points to edge Adrian Madison by 3½ at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 meet at Comstock Park.
“This group of seniors, we accomplished a lot together and we set our goals high,” said Sheahan, who repeated as LP Division 3 long jump champion. “Coach told us this would be the year, and we stuck to it and did the best we could to make it happen.”
At the MHSAA postseason level, that first step came at the May 20 Regional at Shepherd, which Ithaca won by 52 points over the runner-up Bluejays. The Yellowjackets then won their league meet on May 25 with 215 points, doubling up the field while finishing first in seven individual races, two field events and all four relays.
Ithaca also started May with a 12½-point win at the Shepherd Invitational over Cadillac, which went on to tie for 17th in LP Division 2 this month, and third-place Fowler, which won the LP Division 4 championship. Ithaca also won the Division 3 portion of the Alma College Scottie Classic on May 14.
By the end of this season, Ithaca had broken school records in every relay, long jump, the 200, 800, 1,600 and 300 hurdles. Lebron said the relay records might not be approached for some time.
“Those records were already set really high, and these girls really performed at a high level this year,” Lebron said. “They really took a stride.They fed off that (2014) championship in cross country. We sent 10 girls to the MHSAA state meet, and six of those girls ran at the (cross country) state meet when we won. When we won in 2014 in cross country, we came back that track season and placed fourth. They kinda knew the writing was on the wall.
"They were disappointed with the state meet in cross country this year; they finished fifth and I thought they should’ve been higher, and they did too. They felt they let one get away, but they came in more motivated than ever for track.”
Sheahan was the only Ithaca girl to win a Finals championship. But she also won the 100 and 200 at the Regional, where junior Courtney Allen won the 800, junior Emily Foster won the 300 hurdles, and some combination of Sheahan, Foster, Allen, Mikayla Fairchild, Kara Kindel, Morgan Most, Blaire Showers, Amelia Freestone, Kurstin Kalisek and Alyssa Mankey won all four relays.
Counting every team Ithaca finished ahead of at an invitational or postseason event, the Yellowjackets were an incredible 145-2 this season, finishing third at the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association meet but winning every other time they competed.
Lebron has been around plenty of championship teams. In addition to his, Ithaca is best-known for its football team that’s won five of the last six Division 6 titles. He sees every day the sacrifices made by athletes hoping to reach the highest level.
But to him, the level of commitment by the girls on this spring’s team still stood out. Some played volleyball in the past, but switched the cross country to better prepare for track season. As a team, they lifted weights during the offseason three times a week at 6:30 a.m., and informally the distance runners and some sprinters would get together every Sunday for a long run.
Equally “extraordinary,” the Yellowjackets have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.755.
Indeed, football does enjoy most of the statewide shine for the community of 3,000 about 45 miles north of Lansing. But the girls running program has made a reputation as well the last two school years.
“They’re diehard with football. They’re all friends with those guys. But they want their own success,” Lebron said of his athletes. “Every team at Ithaca lives in the shadow of Ithaca football. But I don’t think that’s a negative thing all together. I think our girls are motivated by them. We’re going to cast our own shadow.
"Football is football; it’s America. But these girls have done a good job making a name for themselves.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2015-16:
April: Lake Orion boys lacrosse – Report
March: Hancock ice hockey – Report
February: Petoskey boys skiing – Report
January: Spring Lake boys swimming & diving – Report
December: Saginaw Heritage girls basketball – Report
November: Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard volleyball – Report
October: Benton Harbor football – Report
September: Mason and Okemos boys soccer – Report
PHOTOS: (Top) A pair of Ithaca runners complete a handoff during their Regional meet May 20 at Shepherd. (Middle) The Yellowjackets pose with the first MHSAA Finals championship trophy won in program history. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)