In Just 2nd Season, Van Dyk Breaks Decades-Old K-Christian Throws Records

By Pam Shebest
Special for

June 9, 2022

KALAMAZOO — When an exuberant Tess Van Dyk broke the shot put record at Kalamazoo Christian earlier this year, the senior was thrilled at reaching one of her high school goals.

Southwest CorridorFor her throws coach, Tracy (Rozema) Jackson, the achievement was bittersweet.

Jackson was the previous record-holder with a put of 41 feet, 6 inches, and knew that record was in jeopardy when she saw Van Dyk’s numbers a year ago.

“I thought, just wait and be prepared for it,” Jackson said. “It was kind of something sentimental. That record had been in place for 34 years. I set it in 1988.”

Van Dyk actually broke the record twice.

She put the shot 42 feet, 6 inches, to snap Jackson’s record, then the same day, threw the current mark of 42-9.

That happened during a dual meet April 21, and was just the start of a stellar year.

Van Dyk also shattered the previous discus throw record of 127 feet, 3 inches, set by Sandy (Wolthuis) George in 1978.

Van Dyk’s record-setter was 134-6, tossed at the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship meet May 24.

“When I started track, one of my big goals was to break either the shot put or discus record,” Van Dyk said. “I was like, before I leave this school, I want my name on that board.

“That’s what started me on the path to loving track and getting that grit for it.”

Since the records board has not yet been updated, the recent grad will have to return to the school to see her name up there. But her coach gave her a preview.

“I went into the gymnasium and I took a picture of the board with my name on it, then I covered it up with her name (using SnapChat),” Jackson said.

Those two records are not the only accolades Van Dyk has on her resume.

She owns three MHSAA Finals titles: the discus and shot last year and the shot this year at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 Track & Field Championships.

In addition, she earned all-state honors both seasons.

The camaraderie and respect between the student and coach is evident as they talk and laugh, reviewing the last two years.

In fact, Van Dyk is headed this fall to Western Michigan University, her coach’s alma mater.

Jackson was on the college track team, but noted: “I do not have any records there, and none anymore, thanks to this one,” she said, nodding toward Van Dyk, laughing.

Since her sophomore season was scrubbed because of the statewide COVID-19 shutdown, Van Dyk’s first introduction to track & field was her junior year.

“I just naturally grew toward shot put and discus with the help of my coach and other people because I like running, but not competitively,” she said.

“Shot put you can kind of get your frustrations out. If you had a really bad day, you can just take up all that emotion and let it all go in that moment.”

Kalamazoo Christian track & fieldIt is different for discus, she said. “For discus, you really get the calmness of it and then a quick little snap as you release it, just the feeling of knowing it’s a good one.”

Van Dyk learned a few important lessons at the MHSAA Finals last year.

“In shot put, I had thrown a 41-foot before I went to states,” she said. “(Finals day) was a hot, steamy day. There wasn’t a cloud in sight.

“We were all getting beaten down by the weather. In throwing, you’re just standing there cooking. I had to push through it. I had a huge support team behind me and trusted that my body knew what it had to do.”

It knew enough to give Van Dyk, the top seed, the championship.

In discus, she was seeded third.

“I’d been struggling with that all year, so I had some bigger fish to fry,” she said. “As soon as I got up there, it was a windy day at Baldwin Middle School (in Hudsonville), and some of the big dogs started hitting the fence area around it.

“That was when I realized it doesn’t matter what their records are, you just have to do what you can do. Then I realized I could do it and got my head in the game and squeaked out a 112 (to win).”

Although Van Dyk repeated as shot put champ Saturday, she finished second in discus.

“It was honestly kind of funny, because the girl who beat me (Elli Stender of Gobles) was slated for third as well,” Van Dyk said, referring to her own junior year. “She’s a great girl. I’ve been competing against her all season, and she’s got great form.

“Everything worked together like what happened to me last year. I couldn’t be more grateful to celebrate with her. I am honestly proud of my second place.”

Looking at next season, Jackson said she would not mind if Van Dyk spent some time working with the K-Christian throwers.

“I thought I gave up my (coaching) position now that she took over control of the record,” Jackson joked. “I feel like she just has to walk over here (from WMU). She doesn’t even need gas.

“She does an amazing job with some of the other throwers. That came out this year.”

And not only with her own teammates.

Although the Comets and Hackett Catholic Prep are fierce crosstown rivals, Hackett coach Carl Scholten has respect for Van Dyk.

“She’s a great technician and she knows the events very well, knows the form, knows the techniques and the mechanics,” he said. “That makes her incredibly gifted in these events.

“It’s led to her great success. I love that, not only with her own team but with other kids, she’s wants to help develop other throwers, too. We had a couple of seniors out for the first time, and they really connected with her. She was a great model and inspiration for them.”

One thing the two schools have in common is their faith-based education, which is very important to Van Dyk.

That is also one reason she chose WMU.

“Coach Makiba Batten does not host practices on Sundays, which is a big thing for me,” Van Dyk said. “It’s so close to home, I don’t have to switch churches and that was a big thing, too.”

She also enjoys talking with others about her religion.

When she was getting her shirt for this season, instead of her name she had SDG on the back.

“People ask all the time why I have SDG on my back,” she said. “I say, ‘Glad you asked.’ It stands for Soli Deo Gloria: to God be the glory alone.

“It’s just a reminder to me every time I throw that it’s not me who’s throwing, it’s Him who gave me strength.”

Jackson, who is coordinator of surgery at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, said if she has one thing to say to Van Dyk, it is: “The discipline you put in for the discus and the shot, just continue that in your life, and especially in your spiritual walk. I know how important your church is. Remember the ultimate glory is His.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Kalamazoo Christian’s Tess Van Dyk, pictured at center on the awards podium at Saturday’s LPD4 Finals, closed her career as her school’s record holder in discus and shot put. (Middle) Van Dyk, left, and Kalamazoo Christian throws coach Tracy Jackson. (Action photos courtesy of Kathy Van Dyk, Finals photo by State Champs! Sports Network, and head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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, coach 15 of the meets beginning in 1951. Steve Hoke later competed in the relays 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 first 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.)