Leighton Latest of Family Hurdling Stars

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

June 7, 2016

Mendon’s Mary Leighton has been gliding over hurdles for the Hornets for three years now, dominating most Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference races, as well as an assortment of invitationals.

That’s nothing new for the Leighton clan, which boasts a lineage of talented hurdlers. But there’s something about Mary that’s different.

No one in Division 4 in the Lower Peninsula has gone faster than her in the 100-meter hurdles. Not after Saturday. The junior not only claimed a school-record time of 14.93 seconds en route to an MHSAA championship at Grand Rapids Houseman Field, she set an LP Division 4 meet record, beating Michelle Davis’ time of 15.05 for Reading in 2014.

Older sister Grace, who finished fourth at the LP Division 4 Finals in the 100s and sixth in the 300s as a senior in 2014, owns the Mendon 300 hurdles record, which Mary is closing in on. Older sister Caitlin previously had the 100 hurdles school record … until Saturday. Their mother, Sharon (maiden name Beebe), once had the records in the 100 hurdles at Mendon.

Mary Leighton was half a second away from Caitlin’s record midway through this spring, and she was confident she’d pass her sibling.

“I’m looking forward to beating it. I don’t think there’s going to be a party,” she said, mostly in jest, of her sisters not wanting to give up their record-holding status.

“People say it’s in the blood, but I think I was around it so much, it just kind of rubbed off on me. I have them to look up to, so it’s much easier for me. My form has definitely gotten a lot better. I can three-step now instead of four-step. The less steps you have, the faster you can get over the hurdle and the faster you can finish the race.”

Leighton, who was Finals runner-up in 2015, set her sites on a 15-flat time in the 100s by the time this year’s meet rolled around. She surprised herself by going even faster Saturday.

She beat the field by nearly a second. It was a flawless effort, which included a great start and a complete attack of the middle stretch of hurdles.

As soon as Leighton crossed the finish line, she covered her face with her hands in disbelief of the runaway victory and the time on the scoreboard.

“It hasn't really hit me yet on how I did,” a stunned Leighton said hours after the performance. “I just tried to focus on getting through semis so I actually had a shot.”

Her qualifying time was 15.54, which was a good sign of things to come.

“I was so nervous but I felt better and better the more I ran,” she said. “I didn't even know my time until after the 800 relay. I figured I broke (a record) because all the Mendon parents were just so happy, but I never could have imagined I broke the state record as well. I focused on how I could improve all season and my work paid off. I didn't want to take second again. My sister didn't care I broke her record; she was too happy. I am very happy with my performance and can't wait to see how much I can improve next year.”

Leighton added another all-state finish when she joined Emma Eberstein, Jenna Gales and Kaley Smith for a runner-up effort in the 800 relay (1:47.82), finishing just over a second behind champion Fowler. Her third top-eight finish was a fourth-place run of 47.87 in the 300 hurdles.

That wasn’t a school record, so Leighton has something to shoot for next spring. 

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Mary Leighton covers her face in joy and surprise after a lengthy win in the 100-meter hurdles Saturday at Houseman Field. (Middle) Leighton prepares to clear another hurdle flanked by a pair of opponents. (Photos by Brett Beier.)

Elk Rapids' Schulte Sisters Splitting Finals Weekend Between Tennis, Track

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

June 2, 2023

Today began with a bye for Elk Rapids’ Jaida and Brynne Schulte as the Elks returned to the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Girls Tennis Finals in Kalamazoo.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThey’re planning to say bye to their tennis teammates, though, when the first day of competition is over. The Elks will have to advance to Saturday without them.

That goodbye is just fine with tennis coach Keith Schulte. And, it will be more than fine with the Elk Rapids track & field team – which will be happy to say hello to the sister pair as they head to their LPD3 Finals in Kent City.

Regardless of how they fare today, the Schulte sisters will run Saturday.

Coach Schulte, who teaches strength and conditioning at Elk Rapids, is also the father of Jaida and Brynne. Today’s he’s beaming with pride, and not just for his tennis team’s success. He’s proud of all the student-athletes and their successes this spring, including the girls soccer team moving on to Regionals with a 2-0 win Thursday over Boyne City.

And while all this is going on, he should have a moment or two to just be Dad. Jaida and Brynne teamed up to win the No. 2 doubles title at their Regional as the Elks tied for first place with Traverse City St. Francis two weeks ago. Then the Schulte girls captured first place in the Regional track meet to qualify for Saturday’s Finals. Brynne won the 1,600 and 3,200, and Jaida’s 3,200 relay team took first to move on.

Brynne Schulte sets to start a track relay. Coach Schulte hasn’t had much time to pause and soak in the moment of his daughters’ qualifying for two Finals competitions during the same season.

“I didn’t think much of it until now,” the fourth-year coach said. “I’ve always just challenged my kids to do something difficult and not be scared to fail.  

“They’ve just kind of found the balance on making this stuff happen,” he continued. “It is a pretty cool opportunity if you can go to two state championships.”

Getting to today’s Tennis Finals is a story full of success. The Elks’ first year under Schulte was halted after a week of practice due to the pandemic. The second year saw the team looking at a season with just nine potential players, but recruitment efforts resulted in the 2021 Elks managing to qualify for the  Finals for the first time in their history.

Elk Rapids went on to win the Regional championship in 2022. And then, after graduating six athletes, the Elks were able to repeat this spring with a valiant effort resulting in the co-championship with their conference rival St. Francis.

Dual-sport standouts, while rare, aren’t entirely unheard of – especially at the state’s smaller schools where athletes frequently are needed to fill rosters in multiple sports during the same season. In fact, the Schultes aren’t even alone on their tennis team – sisters Ryleigh and Haleigh Yocum also are playing doubles today but softball on Saturday.

The Yocums won the Regional title at No. 2 doubles and also are slated to be the Elks’ first two batters as they take on Mancelona as one of the favorites to win a Division 3 District title on the softball diamond.

“I do feel bad for them – it’s states,” said 14-year veteran softball coach Erin Merchant. “I do want them to have that opportunity. 

“I hope they go far,” she continued. “But then deep down, I’m like, ‘We need them Saturday.’”

Tim Nance and Jesse Way are in their first year co-coaching the boys and girls track teams at ER. They’re pleased the Schultes are prioritizing track while enjoying tennis.

he Schultes helped the Elks to their first two Regional titles in tennis, including their second straight this spring.“I think it is remarkable how resilient, laid back and casual the girls are about their success,” Nance said. “I would say it hasn’t compromised their talent, hard work and success.

“I think it has worked out great,” he continued. “I am selfish and I want them to myself only, but I am happy they can have two successes.”

The Elks will have Ayva Johnstone at No. 1 singles, Kelly Minidis and No. 2, Morgan Bergquist at No. 3 and Jasmine King at No. 4 this weekend. They also will have No. 1 doubles Chloe Taylor and Caroline Best and No. 4 doubles Tessa Nico and Portia Beebe, in addition to the Yokums and Schultes.

Jaida Schulte is a junior. She’s one of the recruits who joined to help the Elks get to their first Tennis Finals in 2021. Bergquist and Beebe were recruits in 2022.

Tennis is the favorite sport today for those three, but track and cross country are right up there for Jaida thanks to the opportunity to run with her freshman sister Brynne.

Jaida is hoping to at least match her personal-record split of 2:36 in the 3,200 relay Saturday. But her goal was first to win all of her doubles matches Friday and see the tennis team finish top-five in its division.

“Brynne loves track, and I love the challenge of running,” Jaida said. “I don’t think I would have the experience of running track or cross country without Brynne.”

Coaches saw very little disruption, if any, with their track, softball and tennis teams this spring with the Yocums and Schultes dual-sporting. The Schultes were able to get track and tennis practice or competition most every day.

“I prioritized track,” Brynne said.  “I also got a lot of hitting time in for tennis.

“I would go to track practice first, and as soon as I would be done I would run over to the tennis courts and hit with my sister for a half an hour before going home,” she continued. “It has been worth it.”

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) Elk Rapids sisters Brynne (left) and Jaida Schulte have teamed up at No. 3 doubles for the tennis team this season. (Middle) Brynne Schulte sets to start a track relay. (Below) The Schultes helped the Elks to their first two Regional titles in tennis, including their second straight this spring. (Photos courtesy of Jaclyn Schulte.)