Sprint Star Leads Southfield Christian Surge

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

May 2, 2018

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.)

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 second 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.)