Sophomore Stars Lead Hart Girls' Latest Championship Charge

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

June 4, 2023

KENT CITY – If the expression “Tradition never graduates” holds any validity, then girls track & field teams competing in MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 were put on notice again by Hart’s squad Saturday at Kent City High School.

Hart captured its second-straight LPD3 Finals championship and third in six years. And the Pirates did it with a pair of sophomores leading the way in Jessica Jazwinski and Addi Hovey.

Hart totaled 64 points to hold off runner-up Olivet (56.5). Lansing Catholic was third (46), Hillsdale fourth (46) and Jackson Lumen Christi fifth (31).

“This one was more nerve-racking (than last year) because the expectations were a little more there. Last year was more maybe a bit of a surprise,” said Hart coach Calvin Ackley, whose 2022 team scored 63 points and cleared the rest of the field by 24.

“They did great. They knew how to be champions because they were last year. I remember telling them last year halfway through the season that if they look around the room, this is probably the best team in the state and none of them told me they didn’t believe it at that time. This year I didn’t say anything because I think they just knew they were right up there.”

Hovey and Jazwinski are two of those athletes with said quiet confidence.

In Ackley’s words, Hovey was “great” as an all-around athlete and point-scorer, while Jazwinski was “honestly the linchpin” with her distance races.

The 5-foot-10 Hovey took first in high jump with a leap of 5 feet, 4 inches, and she placed third in the 100-meter dash with a time of 12.53 seconds. 

The Associated Press Division 3 first-team all-state basketball player, who helped Hart reach the hoops Semifinals in March, also ran on the Pirates’ third-place 400 relay (50.78) and seventh-place 800 relay (1:49.32) Saturday.

“It was fun,” Hovey said. “A lot of our older teammates put all the effort into (this season), and in the end I think it really paid off for how hard we worked this season. I’m really proud of us.

“I mean, I wish I did a little better in the high jump, but it’s really hot out so that has its side effects, but overall I’m pretty happy with how I did perform,” added Hovey, who established a personal best of 5-11 in the high jump this season, which ranked her fifth nationally in the event.

Jessica Jazwinski leads a race by a large margin for the Pirates. Jazwinski, a New Balance All-American runner who was the MHSAA LP Division 3 individual cross country champion last fall, earned all-state honors in four events Saturday.

She finished first in the 3,200 run (10:57.99), second in the 1,600 (4:58.86) and third in the 800 (2:16.22). Jazwinski also helped Hart score valuable points on the fourth-place 3,200 relay team along with Lexie Beth Nienhuis, Abigail Pretty and Alyson Enns.

“I’m super excited just because, like, I know all the girls so well and we’re all such good friends. To see everybody, like, working so hard at practices and improving … . This year, we actually have so many girls qualified for state that have never qualified before and just to see everybody improving, it’s so amazing.

“Just to contribute to that, I’m super excited about that.”

Other big winners Saturday included Almont senior Devin Johnston and Onsted sophomore Emmry Ross.

Johnston, a dual-sport athlete who also plays softball, raced to first-place finishes in the 100 (personal-record 12.14 seconds) and 200 (24.98 PR). She also anchored her team’s fourth-place 400 relay (50.92).

An Eastern Illinois signee for track, it was tough for Johnston not to be there for her softball team in Saturday’s District tournament. But track is her primary sport, and the decision certainly paid off for her.

“I’m glad that I finished out strong,” Johnston said. “Being a senior, it’s a lot of emotions but I’m glad I finished with the best I could do. I mean, I’m sad that it’s over, but I’m glad with how it went and how I performed.

“(Almont’s softball team) lost in Districts today, but I came here. My sophomore year, my primary was softball and I had to choose so I went to softball Districts that year instead of (track) states. Junior year, I picked (track) states and then this year I picked (track) states. I mean, it’s hard but going into two sports I kind of know it’s going to happen unless (the softball opponent) agrees to move (the game) and they didn’t this year.”

Ross, meanwhile, has a couple more years to perform at the track Finals. On Saturday, she won individual championships in the 400 (56.48) and 800 (2:11.25 PR).

Ross was all-state in a third event, running a leg on Onsted’s fifth-place 3,200 relay (9:48.46), and she just missed all-state distinction as her team’s 800 relay quartet finished ninth.

Like Hart’s Jazwinski alluded, Ross said that a key to performing well on the steamy afternoon was managing the heat. 

“I was trying to keep in a very good headspace – it was the same for everybody, so I didn’t want to let it get me down. It was the same for everybody – not one person was running in any cooler temperature,” Ross said. “I just went out there and did the best I could, and I think I did very well.”

Other champions Saturday included: Lumen Christi’s Madison Osterberg in the 1,600 (4:55.02), Hillsdale’s Mia Hinz in the 100 hurdles (15.89), Olivet’s Emma Peters in the 300 hurdles (46.09 PR), Olivet’s Payton Otto in shot put (39-4½), Quincy’s Sophia Snellenberger in discus (141-5), Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Ally Olszewski in pole vault (11-3), Napoleon’s Alyssa Budd in long jump (17-11.5 PR), Olivet’s 400 relay (McKenzie Speer, Megan Neitzel, Alyssa Kennedy, Celina Sinclair; 50.30), West Catholic’s 800 relay (Ally Olszewski, Alexis Patterson, Aislynn Sweedyk, Claire Arends; 1:46.36), Olivet’s 1,600 relay (Emily Peters, Sophia Pell, Olivea Gessner, Cassie Coleman; 4:06.68) and Lansing Catholic's 3,200 relay (Tessa Roe, Frances Melinn, CC Jones, Hannah Pricco; 9:23.82).

Running tradition has been strong at Hart for a number of years. The Pirates’ girls cross country program won five straight MHSAA LP Division 3 titles (2017-2021) and placed fourth in the fall of 2022.

Expectations are high across Hart’s cross country and track programs. Even though athletes graduate each season, the next group comes in prepared to carry on that tradition.

“I mean, after last year, you kind of look at, ‘We’re missing Kendall Williamson, we’re going to miss Lauren VanderLaan,’ and think, ‘How are we going to fill those gaps?’” Ackley said.

“But I remember watching Addi Hain (now a Hart freshman) – I go to the middle-school meet, I watched her run and I’m like, ‘That girl’s going to help us next year,’ and sure enough, she did. So that’s a good feeling. … We’re going to miss (seniors) Savanna (Owens) and Aspen Boutell and I know I am missing some other girls that are scorers for us, but there will be girls that will step up and take those spots hopefully. We’ll see.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Hart’s Addi Hovey, center, sprints alongside Comstock’s Ti’Anna Murphy-Ryan, left, and Almont’s Devin Johnston. (Middle) Jessica Jazwinski leads a race by a large margin for the Pirates. (Photos by Carter Sherline/RunMichigan.com.)

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 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.)