Talent Plus Form Equal Wheeler's Stardom

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

March 16, 2017

It was cold and rainy on April 29, 2016, and Grand Blanc’s Quiara Wheeler was scared.

The line to make to even have your throw measured in the discus at the Charlie Janke Track & Field Invitational in Jackson was 80 feet, farther than her personal best.

“I was really nervous, because I couldn’t throw very far,” she said. “I threw an 88-4 and was really excited. The week after that I started throwing farther in practice. (Grand Blanc throwing coach Garner Pleasant) and I figured out I was holding it wrong the whole season, then I figured out the hand placement and my footwork.”

After that, she took off.

Wheeler went from scared to be short of the minimum measurement to MHSAA champion in a little more than 30 days, throwing 136 feet, 2 inches on June 4 to win the Lower Peninsula Division 1 title.

“Sometimes they will get a big improvement in the disc because all of the sudden it just clicks,” Grand Blanc girls track & field coach Andy Taylor said. “But it usually takes at least a year or more to do that. To improve 50 feet from the end of April to the state meet, I’ve never heard of that.”

Wheeler improving her personal best by more than 60 feet in one season, and her quick ascension to the top of the state’s pecking order in the discus are actually easier to explain than you would guess.

It was a simple formula: extraordinary talent meets proper form – or close to it, anyway.

“What God has put in her, I can’t put in her,” Pleasant said. “She’s an athlete.”

Wheeler doesn’t just throw for the Bobcats, she also long jumps, with a personal best of 16 feet, and has been on the sprint relays.

She holds a third-degree black belt in martial arts, and her coaches feel that background has helped her to quickly pick things up on the track.

“She’s used to putting in the work and having discipline,” Taylor said. “At the state meet, as she was throwing, I happened to look right in her eyes, and you could tell that she was totally focused.”

While her improvement was lightning fast, it was also gradual, and not without some bumps in the road. In early May, her throws crept into the low 100s – 100-4, 102-1, 113-11 – from May 3 to 10.

Before the Kensington Lakes Activities Association meet, Pleasant decided to add a full spin to Wheeler’s arsenal. She faulted three times, however, and did not record a throw.

“I told her, ‘Forget about it, put it behind you,’” Pleasant said. “When we get ready for the Regional, we’re going to do the South African (technique). At the Regional, she throws the discus 120 feet with a legal South African, and that had to go about 150 feet straight in the air and dropped.

“We had two weeks before the state meet, so all we did is work on the full rotation. That’s all we did for two full weeks.”

The new technique helped Wheeler reach 132 feet in the preliminary rounds of the Division 1 meet, easily putting her into the Finals.

Still, the newcomer to the big stage felt the nerves.

“When it came to the Finals, I was by myself and I was trying to calm myself down the whole time,” Wheeler said. “It was kind of overwhelming at first because all of the girls were so good and I was like, ‘How did I make it to the Finals?’”

Wheeler won by five feet, with no one else topping even her preliminary throw.

Her rapid rise caught the eyes of college coaches, and she said she has scholarship offers from Western Michigan University and Heidelberg University in Ohio. Taylor said college coaches are excited about how much more she can grow.

“I actually never really thought about (throwing in college),” she said. “This was before I was good. When the season was going on, I realized maybe I can do this. But I definitely want to continue this in college.”

Pleasant and Taylor both feel Wheeler is only beginning to tap into her potential as a thrower. She’s dedicated her offseason to getting better in the discus, which doesn’t bode well for those trying to catch her.

“I’ve just been training every day, pretty much since October – I also trained in the summer,” she said. “I’ve been lifting weights, and I’m definitely stronger than I was last year. I work out with two other boys, and they push me because they’re stronger than me. I go in and watch videos, footage of me sometimes and how bad my form was. Coming into the season, I’m hoping to be more consistent with my throws.”

Wheeler doesn’t seem worried that she’ll now have a target on her back as the returning Finals champion. In fact, she’s excited to beat her previous achievements, which is what drew her to track in the first place.

Pleasant has her aiming for the stars.

“I told her, ‘You should be setting your sights on the best marks in the state,’” Pleasant said. “That’s what we’re shooting for, having the best marks in the state. It’s not about state, it’s about going out and trying to have some of the best marks in the nation if you can.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Blanc’s Quiara Wheeler tosses the discus during last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Wheeler enjoys a moment away from the throwing circle. (Photos by John Brabbs/RunMichigan.com.)

Gaylord Record-Setter Embracing Challenges As Championship Season Approaches

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

May 3, 2024

Katie Berkshire has her eyes on the prize today.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAnd she’ll have her eyes on another prize Saturday. After that she’ll move on to more conquests yet this track season.

That pattern will be repeated for the next two years on the track and along the cross country course.

Berkshire, a sophomore at Gaylord High School, is already a long-distance record-holder and a regular feature at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final. Today, she is throwing out the welcome mat to her opponents as Gaylord hosts its annual Blue Devil Classic.

She is welcoming this weekend’s competition because she knows fast races help her get better every day. Winning, although it happens often, is not her top priority. Putting in the work and getting better is what matters most, according to Gaylord girls track & field and cross country coach Lindsey Yates.

“She’s more than just a fast runner,” acknowledged Yates. “She knows she has to put the work in to get good results, and she’s always wanting more.

“The proof is in the pudding in what she does,” Yates continued. “She is a special — very special — athlete and young woman.”

Berkshire started this season by breaking the school record in the 3,200 at Gaylord’s first meet. She’s hoping to break the school’s 1,600 record yet this spring. And, she’s hoping to add to her collection of Regional and conference titles this month.

Higher finishes at the Division 2 Final on June 2 also are on the mind of the running sensation, who had a strong showing as a freshman finishing third in the 3,200 and 10th in the 1,600.

Track is known as an individual sport, but Berkshire looks at it more as a team sport with friendly competition.

Running, which started in Gaylord Elementary’s “Mileage Club” for Berkshire, wouldn’t be the same without teammates.

“Cross country and track are individual sports, but the team is a huge part – without the team it wouldn’t be the same at all,” Berkshire said. “We have all put in so much effort, and we deserve to go out and race and show what we can do.”

Berkshire, seated, confers with the Blue Devils coaches. “She’s a gift to the team,” Yates added. “It is an individual sport, but she has the whole team with her and she rallies for the team and the team rallies for her – it’s a family.”

Gaylord has had its share of individual Finals champions in the past under boys coach Matthew Warren, who Yates notes has played an integral part in Berkshire’s training.  But Berkshire is a one-of-a-kind runner for Yates, who has served as both the girls track and girls and boys cross country head coach the past two years at Gaylord.

“I have not seen anything as fine-tuned as Katie Berkshire, and it’s a breath of fresh air,” said Yates, who assisted both Blue Devils programs a few years before taking over. “The intrinsic desire for her is amazing.”

Running cross country and track brings endless challenges for Berkshire to conquer. The results, she notes, come from the training.

“Running shows me any challenge that comes my way I can just overcome,” Berkshire said. “It shows me if I have a goal in my mind, I can accomplish it if I work hard and put in the effort.”

During the fall, Berkshire won eight of her 12 cross country races including the Big North Conference meet and Regional. She’s already qualified for three Division 2 Finals across the two sports and is likely going to add a fourth Finals next month at Hamilton High School.

Before that, Berkshire is going after another Big North title and a Regional championship. Competitions, like those ahead always bring out her best; the conference includes Division 1 opponents.

“I enjoy running against even girls that are faster than me because they always push me to be better and they are there obviously to race and try their best,” Berkshire said. “They are an influence to me that I can get there one day and I can maybe even beat them the next season.”

This year she has hopes of running a sub-5-minute 1,600 to capture the school record; her best in the race is 5:11. She takes on both distance races regularly and also is a regular in relays. In Wednesday’s dual meet at Alpena, she set two personal bests running a 2:25.60 in the 800 and 1:05.71 in the 400.

Berkshire’s favorite event by far is the 3,200, as she likes finding the right pace and rhythm to handle eight laps.

“Most people would think I am crazy for that,” she said of her pick for favorite. “It’s the longest race on the track, and it feels the best for me.”

Yates says Berkshire has yet to run her best 3,200 of the season. The conference, Regional and Final should bring out the best in Berkshire, she noted.

“She’s amazing, and setting the record isn’t good enough for her. She wants to do it again,” Yates said. “She also wants the mile record, and she’s hungry for it.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Gaylord’s Katie Berkshire readies for a relay Wednesday against Alpena. (Middle) Berkshire, seated, confers with the Blue Devils coaches. (Photos provided by the Gaylord girls track & field program.)