SAULT STE. MARIE — Weather conditions in early April can sometimes be frightful in the Upper Peninsula.
On a day with snow showers falling outside, eight schools took advantage of an opportunity to compete in Friday’s indoor track & field meet at Lake Superior State University’s Norris Center.
“The first meet of the season is very important to me,” said Alpena senior Madi Szymanski, who plans to run cross country and track at Northern Michigan University. “This gives me a starting base and a better idea of where I’m at. I prefer to run outdoors, but I’m very grateful to be indoors today. Conditions are always perfect inside.”
Szymanski was a triple-winner in the LSSU Large School Yooper Invitational, taking the 800-meter run in 2 minutes, 28.26 seconds, the 1,600 (5:27.83) and helping the Wildcats take the 1,600 relay (4:44.39).
“I’ve been doing indoor meets during the winter,” she said. “I go to Saginaw Valley a lot and have been to Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, but this is my favorite 200-meter track. I always look forward to coming here. It’s real exciting and my adrenalin is very high. It’s always great to do well in the first races.”
This marked the first of just three indoor meets in the U.P. this season. Many U.P. schools were scheduled to compete in the Michigan Tech Keweenaw Classic on Tuesday in Houghton with another indoor event taking place April 21 at LSSU.
Both Alpena teams were crowned champions, and the two Manistique teams placed fourth.
Manistique junior Grant Mason won the boys 400 in a personal-best 56.88 seconds, and the girls opened with a victory in the 3,200 relay (11:34.36).
“I expected it to be a little harder on a 200 track, but ended up with my best time,” said Mason. “I had a pretty good start. It’s real important to get this meet in. It’s a lot warmer in here. Early-season meets aren’t very easy to find up here. We had some good competition up here today. The downstate schools are ahead of us because they get an opportunity to see some real good competition.”
The Emeralds finished three seconds ahead of the field in the girls 3,200 relay.
“We’re pretty happy with our time,” said sophomore Emma Jones, who led off that relay. “We still have snow on our track. We’ve been working on our handoffs inside which is not the same, especially on a 200-meter track. It feels like you’re going faster. It’s pretty important for us to get this meet in because we haven’t been outside. This is the first time many of us have been in our events this year. It was good to see different competition today. This is definitely pushing us to our new potential.”
Junior Kelsey Muth, who took the baton from Jones, had similar thoughts.
“It was an awesome feeling to win it,” she said. “We went into it not knowing what to expect. That was a real good starting point for us. Emma and I had a real good handoff, but overall we were a little shaky. Our athletic director (Nate Zaremba) has been scheduling meets (we) need to reach the next level. We’re excited about going downstate for the first time. We’re hoping for nice weather down there.”
Jones placed second in the 400 (1:10.14) and Muth was fourth (1:11.64) for the Emeralds, who resume in Friday’s Ram Scram at Harbor Springs.
“I think today was a good first showing,” said Emeralds’ coach Amy Nixon. “In the first meet of the year, you never know what to expect and we had some girls step up. Some of the new girls stepped into events which others couldn’t. We’re proud of them for being willing to do that. Now we know what the girls are capable of doing. It’s fun to compete again.”
The Manistique boys secured fourth place by taking third in the 1,600 relay (4:03.25).
“Overall, the meet went well,” said Emeralds boys coach Cody Kangas. “Some guys did some real good things, and Grant did a great job in the 400.”
John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
PHOTO Athletes took advantage of the opportunity to compete indoors at Friday’s Yooper Invitational at Lake Superior State University. (Photo by Robert Roos/Sault Ste. Marie Evening News.)
Bradley Richards believes that life is all about trying new things, setting bigger goals and pushing yourself to new heights – in his case, literally.
Richards, now a 6-foot-5, 190-pound junior basketball standout at tiny Fruitport Calvary Christian, played on the school’s fifth-grade team when he was in second grade.
He remembers staring longingly at the rim in those days and dreaming about dunking, before making that dream a reality by throwing one down in February of his seventh-grade year.
While his three older sisters - Taylor, Allyson and Kelsey - were leading the Calvary girls basketball program to new heights, he vowed he would do the same with the boys program someday.
Bradley and his teammates accomplished that goal last spring, winning the school’s first boys District basketball title despite a roster with no seniors.
This season, Calvary came flying out of the gate with a 5-0 start and is now 5-2 heading into Friday’s home game against Saugatuck.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Bradley, who averages 29 points and 14 rebounds per game. “Our school is so small that we’re more like a family. It’s not about me. I’m just so happy for our school and all of the guys on the team.”
The next goal is to repeat as District champions and try to win a Regional title, before setting his sights at clearing 7 feet in the high jump this spring.
“I’m going to try to get past that this year,” said Bradley in his typical humble, matter-of-fact fashion.
One thing his father and fourth-year Fruitport Calvary Christian boys basketball coach Brad Richards has learned is to not put anything past his only son, the youngest of his four children.
Bradley displayed an interest in music as a young boy and now sings in the school’s worship group and plays the saxophone, piano and guitar. Last fall, he played high school football for the first time as part of a cooperative agreement with Muskegon Catholic Central and wound up starting at wide receiver and defensive back for the state powerhouse program.
“He’s blessed and he’s gifted – yes,” said his father, who also coached all three of his girls during their Calvary Christian basketball careers. “But he works so hard.
“Bradley sets goals and works toward them. He’s always looking for the next thing to do.”
True to his school
One thing he doesn’t like to do is media interviews. Specifically, he doesn’t like calling attention to himself.
“He is pretty quiet and would rather have his teammates get the attention,” said his mother, Joy.
Fruitport Calvary Christian is one of the smallest schools on the entire Lakeshore with 51 students in grades 9-12, and just 17 boys in the high school.
The Eagles take great pride in their ability to compete against much larger schools. They made a huge statement during the first full week of December with three convincing victories over bigger schools.
That week started on Tuesday, Dec. 5, with Calvary’s first-ever boys basketball win over neighbor Fruitport, a Division 2 school that competes in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue. Bradley scored 35 points with 14 rebounds in that game, with clutch free throws by role player Eric Dubois Quayle sealing the win.
Two days later, Richards scored 36 points with 17 rebounds in a win over Grand Rapids Sacred Heart.
Calvary then capped the 3-0 week Friday with a victory over Kent City, another Division 2 school, as Bradley scored 36 points with 18 rebounds.
Calvary is led by the “big three” of juniors Richards and Quinn Swanson and senior Sam Zelenka. Swanson, the team’s second-leading scorer with 17 points plus six rebounds and three assists per game, injured his knee last week against Schoolcraft and his health will have a huge bearing on the team’s success going forward. Zelenka is the top defender and averages 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
The other starters are junior workhorse Zach McFarren, who owns the school’s shot put and discus records and has played all but six minutes over the team’s seven games, and senior Nolan Ghezzi.
Richards, already a two-time Associated Press all-state selection who even made the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan all-state team as an eighth grader, has seen every gimmick defense to try and shut him down, including box-and-twos and triple teams. He credits his experience in football and track with helping him deal with it.
“There is usually a quick guy in front of me and a big guy behind me,” said Bradley, who scored a career-high 47 points in a game last season. “Football has really helped me, because I’m not as scared of the contact. The high jumping has helped me to elevate and get my shot off.”
Jim McHugh is a high jump legend from Pentwater who went on to become a two-time national champion in the event at Hillsdale College, and he now coaches West Michigan athletes in the event.
The first time he worked with Bradley Richards, in April of last year, he knew he had something special on his hands.
“Bradley went up and literally hurdled the bar at 5-11,” said McHugh. “I was in shock. I said to myself: ‘This is gonna be a heck of a ride.’ The kid is a generational talent.”
The coaching of McHugh paid immediate dividends, as Bradley improved from a top jump of 6-1½ as a freshman to 6-6½ in last year’s Regional meet. Then came the Division 4 Finals at Hudsonville a few weeks later.
Bradley won the first track Finals championship for Fruitport Calvary with a leap of 6-10 – which was 3 inches higher than anyone else in any of the four Lower Peninsula divisions and entire Upper Peninsula that day – and caught the attention of college scouts from across the country.
The following week, he competed at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Philadelphia and placed second with a jump of 6-8.24.
McHugh shudders to think of how high his prodigy can soar. He has his sights set on the Division 4 Finals record of 6-10½ (Kurt Schneider, Auburn Hills Oakland Christian, 2009), the Muskegon-area record of 7-0 (Steve Paulsen, Fremont, 1998) and the all-division/class Finals record of 7-1 (John Payment, Brimley, 1989).
“God has given him incredible talent, but he also has the desire it takes,” said McHugh, who is also working with another Division I college high jump prospect in Hart junior Addison Hovey. “I gave him a workout plan, and he has done every bit of it. He has cleaned up his diet, done the cold showers and the cold bathtubs, everything. I’m excited to see the results.”
Richards, whose first love was basketball, admits he is smitten with the high jump and seeing how high he can soar.
Now, when asked about his favorite athletes, he still mentions Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant, but he also includes Olympic gold medalist high jumper Mutaz Barshim of Qatar – who made news by not taking additional jumps at the 2020 Olympics in Japan, thereby sharing the gold medal with Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy.
“I just respect that so much, sharing the gold medal,” Bradley said.
Now the Bradley Richards recruiting saga has begun and, for him, it’s not just about choosing what school – it’s also about choosing what sport.
“I would like to do both, play basketball and high jump in college, if possible,” Bradley said.
That would certainly be a possibility if Bradley follows in his family’s footsteps at Cornerstone University. His father was a basketball standout at Cornerstone, which is where he met Joy, and all three of his sisters played for the Golden Eagles. (Kelsey is currently a student assistant for this year’s team.)
Playing both may not be possible if he pursues high jump at the Division I level, where Michigan and Illinois are among schools actively recruiting him.
“I know at some point I’m going to have to make a decision, but I don’t have to right now,” said the 17-year-old Bradley. “So it doesn’t do me any good to sit and stress about it all the time.”
Instead, he is focused on more immediate goals.
The first is figuring out a way for his basketball team to snap a two-game losing skid and get positioned for another postseason run.
Then it will be trying to clear the magical high jump number of 7-0, and beyond. And don’t forget football, where he would love to start off his senior year by helping Muskegon Catholic improve on its 6-5 record from a year ago and make a run at the school’s 13th state football championship.
Only after all of that will it be college decision time.
“It’s not an easy choice, and it will take a lot of prayer and discernment,” admitted Richards, who will look for help from his immediate family and his school family in making his choice. “I’ll figure it out. I usually do.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Fruitport Calvary Christian’s Bradley Richards stands atop the podium after winning the high jump last spring at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals. (Middle) Richards lines up to shoot a free throw. (Below) Playing as part of a cooperative with Muskegon Catholic Central, Richards works to get away from a Traverse City St. Francis tackler. (Track photo courtesy of Joy Richards; basketball and football photos courtesy of Local Sports Journal.)