By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Remus Chippewa Hills girls track coach Sally Schafer tells her athletes that each season is a chapter of one book that is the Warriors’ program.
For the last decade, it’s been an award winner – and a best seller as class after class has kept going one of the state’s most impressive runs in any sport.
Chippewa Hills – despite just one senior and seven upperclassmen total – won its 10th-straight league meet last week by once again dominating the Central State Activities Association field. The Warriors also this season pushed their dual meet winning streak to 68, their last loss all the way back on April 25, 2002. And they added a Division 2 Regional championship last week, edging Mount Pleasant by 1.5 points despite being the smallest school in the division.
Track and field can be a sport of highs and lows, especially for a school of Chippewa Hills’ size and the massive effect one or two elite athletes can have. But the Warriors’ consistency makes the run more incredible – over that decade, they competed in four leagues against some schools that were smaller but also many that were much bigger.
“We’ve seen it all,” Schafer said. “We’ve seen Ludington; I remember seem them show up when I was starting coaching, and we hated seeing them getting off the bus, 80 of them. They’d clean you up, get on the bus and leave. And finally, one of the things I said was, 'What are we going to do? What do we need to do to beat them?'
“We were at Regionals one year, and I said we’ve got to figure out how this is done. I was tired of being in the middle of the pack, or on the low end. We sat down and said we have to develop everything across the board – not just be a distance school, or a sprints school. We need to have it all.”
She and her staff have built that machine – which also has allowed the program to annually plug in parts even in seasons like this one.
Most of Schafer’s athletes this spring were still waiting to start kindergarten when the winning streaks began. Of 37 competitors total, there are 26 freshmen. The team also graduated seven significant contributors off last season’s team, including two now competing at the college level.
Still, Chippewa Hills – recipient of this week's Second Half team High 5 – won six events at the Regional. Sophomore Megan O’Neil took first in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs. Junior Corey Robison won the discus, and sophomore Erin Drouillard won the pole vault. And O’Neil, and freshmen Emily Starck, Kylie Schafer and Larissa Umbleby won the 3,200 relay by a healthy seven seconds.
The Regional title was the team's fourth in the last five seasons.
“Winning breeds itself, but losing does too. (So) every year we try to continue tradition. We just reload,” Schafer said. “A lot of times we go year to year, but we look at ourselves more as a program. We know what we have coming.”
This season’s success is atypical of a freshman-dominated squad because Warriors freshmen are atypical. While a talented bunch, Chippewa Hills freshmen generally join the high school program with an advanced knowledge of the sport after competing through full junior high schedules and working out alongside and with mentoring from the older athletes during those seventh and eighth grade seasons.
And the veteran coaching staff keeps the gears turning smoothly. Sally Schafer’s father, Don Foreman, was the boys track coach for 28 years, and Sally was a senior on the first girls Regional champion in 1985. She joined the coaching staff in 1993 and took over in 1999, and the coaches from junior high up have mostly remained the same throughout her tenure.
“The boys coaches, the girls coaches, the boys team, the girls team; we really are like one. We work out together sometimes, and it’s a family,” Schafer said. “The kids come in, and they’re not sure what to expect. But by the end, my goal as a coach is to have them only wanting more.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Chippewa Hills freshman Kylie Schafer runs during this season's Alma Invitational. (Middle) Warriors sophomore Megan O'Neil takes a hand-off from teammate Emonee Anderson during the CSAA championship meet at Hesperia. (Below) The Warriors celebrate their 10th-straight league meet championship. (Top and middle photos courtesy of Vickie Starck.)
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.)