SOUTHFIELD – The village of Grass Lake, located in Jackson County, and the country of Nigeria are worlds apart in many ways.
But at Southfield Christian, chance circumstances have brought the two together – and the results have had a positive effect in the classroom and in the sport of track & field.
Todd Crouch ran track at Grass Lake High School and then in college at Spring Arbor before graduating in 2007. Crouch became a substitute teacher at Grass Lake soon after graduation, and he also helped coach the track team.
But securing a full-time teaching position wasn’t easy. Remember the times. The recession of the late 2000s left few unscathed.
“I applied, applied and applied,” Crouch said. “I graduated in 2007, and the recession followed. It was a situation where people who were working were holding onto their jobs, and art teachers weren’t in high demand.
“Then someone, I don’t even know who this person was, slipped me a sticky note. There was a message to contact a person. I had no idea what was going on. I’d never been to Southfield, and here I was contacting the superintendent at Southfield Christian, Sue Hoffenbacher, about a possible interview and Sue told me that she had been waiting for my call. I interviewed on a Friday, and on Monday I had the (teaching position).”
That was 2010. Crouch is now in his eighth season also as the girls and boys track & field coach at Southfield Christian and he teaches art classes at the high school level and at the middle school, which is located on the same campus.
In retrospect, Crouch said it was his destiny to coach and teach at a religious school like Southfield Christian.
“It’s a good story,” he said. “God meant for me to be here.”
It gets better. Southfield Christian won its first MHSAA track title last season, when the girls team finished with 62 points, 10 ahead of second-place Fowler at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals held at Houseman Field in Grand Rapids. The program’s previous best finish was runner-up in 2007.
Chika Amene and Kaelin Ray, both juniors last season, were the stars on that team. Amene placed first in the three sprints and ran the third leg on the winning 1,600-meter relay team. Ray ran the second leg in that race, placed first in the 300 hurdles and third in the 100 hurdles.
Of the six athletes who qualified for last year’s Finals, five were possibilities to return this spring. Two of those five, however, are not competing in track at this time. Crouch said Ray is focusing on club volleyball this spring. Junior Grace Sanders competed in Southfield Christian’s first two track meets but suffered an injury also playing club volleyball – she could return to the track before the end of this season and was part of last year’s 800 relay that finished third at the Finals.
But Crouch remains optimistic his team can contend for another title. The Chargers have 16 on the girls varsity team, and a number of those athletes have stepped up and shown much improvement over last season – including seniors Grace McFerrin and Shelby Goodson, who both ran on the 800 relay at Houseman last spring as well.
Southfield Christian’s chances begin with Amene, the best athlete in Division 4. Her parents, Chinedum and Uchenna, were born in Nigeria, and both competed in sports. Her mother was a track athlete in high school and Uchenna played soccer in college at University of Detroit Mercy. Amene’s brother, Dubem, is a sophomore and also runs track.
Physically, Chika Amene is stronger this season and competing at a higher level. If she can match what she did last season, that’s 40 points at the Finals, assuming she and three teammates can grab a first in a relay.
Amene has been a sprinter since before junior high. Early on she excelled in the 100 and 200. Gradually, the 400 became her best event. It took Amene until late in her freshman season to approach the 400 seriously, and it took an athlete on the boys team to provide that push.
Blake Washington is a junior at University of Michigan, and his best event is the 400. But it wasn’t always his favorite. Like Amene, Washington concentrated on the 100 and 200 early in his high school career.
“It was at the Regionals of his sophomore year,” Crouch said. “We had some injuries, and we told (Washington) he had to fill in. He ran so well in the (1,600) relay that I said to him, ‘You know, we’re going to have you work on that.’”
Washington set the LP Division 4 Finals record in the 400 in 2015 (49.34) that still stands.
“I was a freshman when Blake was a senior,” Amene said. “The 200, in my mind, was my best. Blake ran the 100 and 200, and transitioned to the 400. I didn’t even think about the 400. In one meet, one of my coaches said to run in the (1,600) relay and my time was really good. So I started training in the 400 as a sophomore.
“(Washington) was like a mentor. He gave me advice on my classes, my school work and running. He taught me a lot in the 400. He told me to make sure I got out fast, to get out hard. In college he told me to have my priorities straight, and don’t get distracted.”
Amene’s time when she won the 400 last season was 58.83. Her personal best is a 57.6. She ran 57.96 to finish 17th in March at the New Balance Nationals Indoor held in New York.
“I’m slowly getting back into shape,” she said. “That indoor season takes a lot out of you.”
A goal-setter, Amene said she hopes to run a 55 flat at the MHSAA Finals.
Amene said she’ll likely follow Washington to U-M. Amene’s grade-point average is 3.7, and she intends to major in business or economics with an eye on law school. She said she’s always been a Michigan fan, and the fact that a second cousin attended U-M doesn’t hurt – that cousin being 2012 Ann Arbor Huron grad Cindy Ofili, who won three LP Division 1 individual titles as a high school senior before becoming a Big 10 champion and Olympian representing Great Britain at the 2016 summer games.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Chika Amene, far right, leads the pack during a sprint. (Middle) Chika, with parents Chinedum and Uchenna at last season’s MHSAA Finals. (Photos courtesy of the Amene family.)
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.)