Future Rivals Shine at Kent City, Hart Beats All for 2nd Finals Win

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

June 5, 2022

KENT CITY – Kylee Poulton and Lani Bloom are small-school standouts headed for the big time of Division I track & field in the Big Ten Conference.

They showed why at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals at Kent City High School. They’re about to be arch-rivals in college, too.

Poulton, a Holland Black River senior signed with Indiana University, sprinted to individual titles in the 100-meter dash (12.28 seconds) and 200 (24.83). Bloom, an Ithaca senior signed with Purdue University, ran away with championships in the 800 (2:11.86) and 1,600 (4:49.60). Both runners also anchored relays for their respective teams.

Cross country power Hart was a landslide winner of the team Finals title, the Pirates’ second overall and first since 2018, as they totaled 63 points – 24 more than runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia. Onsted was third (33), Montague fourth (29) and Quincy fifth (28).

“You know, it’s been fun. I know when I started coaching back in ’98 for Hart, they needed somebody and it kind of just grew into a passion. I love coaching – I like teaching school, but I love coaching, too,” said Hart girls track coach Calvin Ackley, who is an assistant for the Pirates’ girls cross country program that’s a five-time reigning champ in LP Division 3.

“It’s fun. It’s fun just to put Hart on the map a little bit in one small aspect of life. … If you’re going to do something, do it all-out, you know.”

All-out is exactly the way Poulton and Bloom performed Saturday.

For Poulton, those were her first two Finals championships. She had the best time of all qualifiers in the 400 but decided not to run that event because she wanted to conserve energy for the 200. Last year, she was LPD3 runner-up in the 100, third in the 200 and fourth in the 400.

Poulton ran the anchor leg on Black River’s 1,600 relay team to close the day Saturday. That quartet did not place, but she still enjoyed herself.

Ithaca track“This year was really fun. I really love my team this year,” said Poulton, who ran into a bit of a headwind Saturday but still felt strong. “Having a 4x4 relay has been, like, a highlight because it’s just so fun.

“In the past years, I wasn’t able to participate in relays, but we were able to put together a pretty good team this year and run in the state finals. I’d say my highlight would be the Regional meet. We were last (in the 1,600 relay) and then we ended up becoming first (at the Regional).”

Bloom is no stranger to MHSAA Finals championships. She also won 800 and 1,600 titles at last year’s Finals, plus she captured an LP Division 3 cross country championship in the fall.

Bloom anchored Ithaca’s 3,200 relay team that placed fourth.

“I was really nervous going into (Saturday’s meet) because I haven’t really had a lot of races where I had to have that get-up-and-go mindset where I had to, like, actually race my hardest, dive over the line every time,” she said. “It was a challenge for me today, but I feel like I really rose to the occasion and I’m really proud of what I did today.”

Other individual champions from Saturday’s LP Division 3 Finals included Onsted’s Emmry Ross in the 400 (57.93), Grand Rapids Covenant Christian’s Meghan Beute in the 3,200 (personal record 10:37.57), Pewamo-Westphalia’s Saige Martin in the 100 hurdles (15.23 PR) and 300 hurdles (46.24 PR), Sand Creek’s Grace Elliott in shot put (40-4.25 PR), Grayling’s Rylan Finstrom in discus (145-2 PR), Lawton’s Heidi Newhouse in high jump (5-5), Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Ally Olszewski in pole vault (11-0 PR) and Benzie Central’s Gloria Stepanovich in long jump (17-4.25).

Two of Montague’s relay teams claimed championships, in the 400 (50.24) and 800 (1:47.10). Ross helped Onsted also win the 1,600 relay (4:06.02), while Hart cruised to victory in the 3,200 (9:30.18).

“I mean, it’s crazy. We just came here with nine girls, and we knew we were seeded decently high. But just to go out here and finally do it has been something that I didn’t expect at the beginning of the season,” Hart senior Kendall Williamson said. “I had no idea we were going to be here.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Holland Black River’s Kylee Poulton, middle, sets the pace during one of her sprint championships Saturday at Kent City. (Middle) Ithaca’s Lani Bloom builds a significant lead during one of her victories. (Click for more from Carter Sherline/Run Michigan.)

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)