Conversations in the Nesbitt house always seem to come back to track and field.
The fact that the father, Michael, is the cross country and boys track coach at Bay City Western, and his two children, Brendan and Sydney, are MHSAA Finals qualifiers in both sports is only part of the reason.
“Having my dad as a coach is different because he’s with you like every second of basically every day,” Brendan Nesbitt said. “When you’re at practice when he tells you something, he’s not telling you as your dad, he’s telling you as your coach. Then at home, he’ll switch gears. Even when we come home, we talk a lot about track or cross country, but that’s just because we’re really big track nerds.”
Time at the track is time with family for the Nesbitts.
Brendan is a senior at Western who finished seventh in the Lower Peninsula Division 1 meet a year ago in the 800 meters. Sydney is a sophomore who qualified in the same event her freshman year.
Michael has been coaching at Western for 19 years, and while recently his children have been a big part of that, they’ve never really been that far away.
“It wasn’t just my wife and myself raising the kids,” Michael said. “The athletes would babysit them on some nights, and they were teaching them to run hurdles and things like that.”
Running runs in the family, as both Michael and his wife, Deanna, were collegiate runners. Michael’s father, Jim, was his coach at Saginaw Valley State University.
During Michael’s childhood, while his dad was a high school coach, he spent time carrying athletes’ sweats, or anything else that would put him near the team and his dad.
Two decades later, Brendan – who also will run at Saginaw Valley – was doing the same thing.
“I’m the oldest sibling, so I didn’t have other siblings to look up to, I guess,” Brendan said. “I was always at the team dinners the day before the meets, and I had fun and looked up to them. They treated me like a little brother.”
Sydney, meanwhile, has had a unique experience. Not only did she grow up around the track and cross country teams, she also has had a brother on those teams – and at home – that she has admired and followed.
“During the summers I’ve been training with my dad and the high school team since like sixth grade,” she said. “I knew what Brendan was like, and how hard he trained, and I wanted to be like him.”
Brendan said he’s passed some knowledge onto his sister, for instance, like the importance of getting up each weekend and going for a run even when she’d rather not. But he said her teammates and her talent are doing the bulk of the work.
“Coming out of middle school, we knew she was going to be pretty good. We just didn’t know how good,” he said. “Since I’ve been on the team, she’s been around the high school team more, and she saw me and how I adjusted to high school races. When she came in, our girls team had a bunch of good older girls. My class is big on the girls side, and she knew a lot of them, so they taught her most of the stuff.”
They couldn’t give her what Michael did on the day of the 2016 MHSAA Finals, however. In her first time running at the meet – she had been there several times as a spectator – Sydney was too excited to be overwhelmed after watching her brother come from the middle of the pack in the boys 800 to run a personal best time of 1 minute, 54.85 seconds and earn an all-state medal.
While Sydney didn’t place among the top eight, she ran her own personal best of 2:18.14 to finish 17th in Division 1.
“It was always amazing to be at the state meet – the atmosphere was so cool – and I always wanted to be part of that,” Sydney said. “My brother ran before me and he got seventh in the state, so that was a huge motivating factor.”
It was, of course, a big moment for Brendan, too. He remembers making his final kick after hearing his dad and grandfather giving encouragement and guidance with about 250 meters to go. After he crossed the finish line, he looked back and the first face he saw was his father’s.
“I turned and looked at my dad right away,” Brendan said. “He’s standing at the 50-yard line and he’s holding up the numbers on his hand that he had on the hand timer. Basically, I walked over to him and gave him a hug, then gave my teammates a hug.”
Being the first person to greet a runner at the finish line is both a duty and a perk of being a coach. Being the first to greet your son after an all-state performance? That’s something else altogether.
“I try to internalize most of the dad part when I’m coaching,” Michael said. “I know it’s my son out there, but he’s also a runner for Western high school. He’s a runner for me on the track. But it was a pretty emotional moment when he earned his medal at the state meet. That’s a proud dad moment. That’s when it comes to reality – after the race.”
While he gets them in the fall and spring, Michael isn’t always coaching his children. Technically, he’s not the girls track coach, either. That job belongs to Rich Syring, although Michael is the distance coach, so he does oversee most of Sydney’s workouts.
During basketball season, however, he’s just dad.
“It was nice when they got into middle school and high school, I got to take the dad seat in the stands,” Michael said. “To be coached by someone else, that’s a good experience. You have to know it’s not dad out there, and that somebody else is going to yell at them. I like the basketball, just the idea of them getting exposure in a different sport. I think it helps them become not just a better runner, but a better athlete.”
Just because he’s not the coach, however, doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt.
“For basketball, he doesn’t coach, but he’s definitely the loudest in the stands,” Sydney said with a laugh. “If something goes wrong, he’ll give me a look. I know what he’s saying just with that look.”
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) From left, Brendan, Michael, Sydney and Deanna Nesbitt at the 2016 Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Brendan Nesbitt, in yellow, works to move up from the middle of the pack during the 800. (Top photo courtesy of the Nesbitt family, middle by Carter Sherline/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.)