Forest Area's Lange Goes Extra Record Mile in Extraordinary Recovery

By Tom Spencer
Special for

May 19, 2023

When Meagan Lange makes her bid to return to the MHSAA Track & Field Finals on Saturday at her team’s Regional meet, few of her opponents will know her story.

Northern Lower PeninsulaHer teammates likely won’t mention much, if anything, either.

But the Ricketts family no doubt will join hers and several more with ties to the Fife Lake Forest Area community who are aware of the details and cheering her on as she finishes up a successful – if not extraordinary – high school career.

If Lange’s story does not ring familiar, her track success may not seem unusual. But many would say it is unbelievable and offer other superlatives for what she’s accomplished.

Lange, a senior, will compete at Marion — which will host a tough Lower Peninsula Division 4 Regional — in an attempt to get back to the Finals in the 400 and 800 runs and 800 relay. She did all of the above her sophomore and junior years after missing out on her freshman season in 2020, which was canceled due to the pandemic.

Just weeks after finishing her great sophomore year, a car crash June 18, 2021, nearly ended her career and life.

“If anybody knew what she went through, they would be amazed at what she can do,” said Ron Stremlow, Forest Area’s coach. “It is amazing she can compete.

“Lucky to be alive, and she has come back to do what she has done.”

The accident occurred just a mile from her home. 

Lange rounds a curve during a relay race. “The superintendent at my school, Josh Rothwell, was called by the police that day to tell him to get grief counselors set up at the school and ready because ‘this girl’ was probably going to die,” Lange recalls being told. “The wrecker driver estimated I flipped about three to five times.

“I went out the passenger side windshield because I didn't have my seatbelt on,” she went on. “They say that my not having my seatbelt on may have actually saved my life.”

Lange, perhaps the most decorated track athlete in Forest Area’s history, knew all along she’d be back competing. Her comeback started with intense physical therapy even as her teammates may not have been aware of her recovery efforts during the school’s summer break.

“I've actually never really had my teammates ask me about (the accident and recovery),” Lange said. “I don't know if it's because they don't know how serious it actually was or if they are just glad I'm still here.

“It was kind of hard for me because people thought I was fine when summer was over, and I started going back to school because on the outside I looked fine other than a scar just above my right eyebrow that had 26 stitches in it at one point,” she continued. “But on the inside was the real damage, but no one could see that so no one really knew my condition except the people who were there with me.”

Lange credits the support of her father Jon, mother Kallie, and sister Lauren for getting through the summer of 2021 and returning to cross country, basketball and track her junior year. She also singles out her strong religious beliefs.

Meagan now holds Forest Area records in the 400, 800 and 1,600 runs, as part of the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 relays, and also for the 5K cross country race. Yet, she does not consider herself a long-distance runner. And, until just recently, she didn’t really understand why others might think her story was special.

But just a few weeks ago, in breaking that 1,600 record, she accomplished something especially memorable.

Weather conditions have severely hampered Lange and the Warriors’ opportunities to compete outdoors this spring; Lange and her teammates have only five meets under their belts. But the weather did permit them to make the short trip April 14 to Buckley, where she broke that school record in the 1,600 that previously belonged to 1987 graduate Dawn Ricketts.

Lange has rarely run the 1,600; in fact, she’s run it only once this spring – that day. Meanwhile, the Ricketts family is quite familiar with Lange’s story – and Dawn Ricketts was at the meet in Buckley with her brother Jim Ricketts. Dawn Ricketts reportedly raised her hands in jubilation after the official time was announced. 

Lange, far right, stands with Dawn Ricketts and coach Ron Stremlow.Lange’s father, who first coached the record-setter in second grade and “never stopped,” according to Meagan, oversaw her training for the 1,600 as she sought to add a record in that race to her growing list of accomplishments.

“A month before track practice started my dad started training me,” she said. “I put more work in before the season than I ever have.”

Lange credits her father for pushing her in the right direction and giving her tools along the way.

She just as quickly notes her mom played a crucial role in her recovery, from staying at her side in the hospital to driving to doctor and therapy appointments. “And, anything else I needed,” Lange said.  

Older sister Lauren was also a key member of the recovery team.

“She would come to the hospital with worksheets she had made, usually fill-in-the-blank type things, and make me do them.,” Lange said of her sister. “We would always make fun of my handwriting after because I could barely write, and it was almost illegible.

“The year prior to my accident she got diagnosed with cancer, and I felt she could relate to my situation more,” Meagan continued. “I would tell her things that I didn't tell anyone else because I thought she was the only one who would understand.”

Stremlow, who has coached track at Forest since 1984 with just a few seasons off, was Ricketts’ coach when she set the 1,600 record. Ricketts’ time was 5:58.5. Lange beat the time by 21 hundredths of a second, running a 5:58.29.

Stremlow is proud of both record setters and is amazed his current top miler is potentially headed back to the Finals again. If she qualifies Saturday, as Stremlow anticipates, Lange would advance to the LPD4 Finals on June 3 at Hudsonville.

“Jessica is pretty determined,” Stremlow said. “After the accident, she said she would make it back to the Finals, and she did!”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Forest Area’s Meagan Lange shows some of the many medals she’s received for her running achievements. (Middle) Lange rounds a curve during a relay race. (Below) Lange, far right, stands with Dawn Ricketts and coach Ron Stremlow. (Photos by Lauren Lange/Perfectly Imperfect.)

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.)