By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
KENTWOOD – The Oak Park girls track & field team won the final event of Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals.
That victory in the 1,600 relay was the Knights’ lone victory of the meet. However, a lack of individual winners didn’t prevent them from going back-to-back as overall champions.
Oak Park’s depth was on display as it scored 74 points to win the Finals at East Kentwood High School. Detroit Renaissance took runner-up with 71 points, while Rockford was third with 69.
The Knights have won five Division 1 titles over the last six years.
“A complete team win, and we were solid across the board,” Oak Park coach Brandon Jiles said. “I think it’s the first championship we’ve won where we’ve only won one event, but they placed in everything else so it worked out for us. It was a great meet.”
Oak Park won the 1,600 relay with Jayla Jones, Tamyra Todd, Kourtney Kennard and Chloe Vines in a meet record-breaking time of 3:45.13.
“I’m so humbled and excited,” Vines said. “I’m proud of myself because there are times I don’t think I’m capable of doing certain things, but my teammates trusted me. The girls with me are all underclassmen and they are so motivational and inspiring. They make me want to do great.”
Jiles believed his team had the talent and depth to win even without notching first-place finishes.
“We were really balanced across the board this year,” Jiles said. “We weren’t exceptional in anything, but we were really good in a lot of things.
“It’s a little bit sweeter when you can win a tight battle with two other great teams. Renaissance was outstanding in sprints, and Rockford was amazing with their distance and overall team. I have a lot of respect for those teams, and we had to get the best out of our kids to even think about winning.”
Rockford senior Ericka VanderLende won the 1,600 (4:41.00) and 3,200 (10.24.57) and finished runner-up in the 800.
“I was really happy to complete all three events and not completely fall apart at the end, so I could get all the points I could for my team,” VanderLende said. “I was really happy to get two PRs (personal records) and then just come back and finish strong in my last race ever for Rockford.”
VanderLende won the 1,600 a year ago and placed runner-up in the 3,200.
“I just wanted to give it my best effort and go home knowing that I did all I could and laid it all on the line,” VanderLende said.
Her run at three titles was spoiled by Grand Haven senior Gabby Hentemann, who clocked a winning time of 2:08.70 to win the 800.
Hentemann, a senior, missed last year’s Finals due to a foot injury.
“I was in a boot cheering for my teammates last year after suffering a stress fracture,” Hentemann said. “It was a very painful and long recovery, so being able to just race today was a huge opportunity.
“It was very emotional for me to come back and win because my coaches and teammates watched me struggle the past year mentally and physically to recover from this injury.”
Detroit Renaissance freshman Kaila Jackson had an impressive debut and claimed a victory in the 200 (24.04), while finishing runner-up in the 100.
“I wanted to push myself harder after the 100 so I could win the 200,” Jackson said. “Most people get angry, but I build my anger up and take it out on the track. It was a great experience for my first state meet with the crowd and all the other runners. We pushed each other, and it was amazing.”
Jackson’s teammate, Leeah Burr, won the 400 in a time of 54.17.
White Lake Lakeland’s Grace Stark repeated in the 100 hurdles (13.43).
Other individual winners included: East Kentwood’s Qe’Neisha Young (100), Troy’s Lauren Fulcher (300 hurdles), East Kentwood’s Belle Okoroafo (discus), Dexter’s Nicole Bow (pole vault), Okemos’ Jasmine Clerkley (shot put), Mona Shores’ Elizabeth Knoll (high jump) and Walled Lake Western’s Kennedy Jackson (long jump).
PHOTOS: (Top) Oak Park celebrates its fifth Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship over the last six seasons. (Middle) Rockford's Ericka VanderLende capped her high school career with two more individual titles. (Photos by Carter Sherline. Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City.
As she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore.
“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.
“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.”
Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team.
“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.”
Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.
Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled.
“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind.
“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said.
Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.
“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.
“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.”
Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness.
“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.”
Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season.
“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.”
Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor.
“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.”
The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear.
She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do.
“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.”
Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture.
“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.”
Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)