By Brian Spencer
Brad Walraven initially wanted to coach baseball. And he planned on staying in his first softball job, at Bay City All Saints, just four seasons – long enough to coach his younger sister through her graduation from the school.
But though the last 33 seasons weren’t part of his original plan, there’s no question they’ve worked out well for hundreds of athletes who have come under his leadership.
Walraven has won four MHSAA softball championships and is among only six high school coaches in his sport nationwide with at least 1,000 career wins, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Walraven achieved that milestone when his Frankenmuth team swept Essexville-Garber 7-2 and 7-0 on May 21.
The victories made the Eagles 27-4 this season – and Walraven 1,000-276 in 33 seasons total, including the first 30 at All Saints. In MHSAA history, his career wins total is behind that only of Warren Regina’s Diane Laffey, who has a 1,048-395-3 record heading into this week’s District tournaments.
Walraven also has won 25 District and 16 Regional championships, and taken 10 teams into MHSAA Finals championship games – including the Eagles last season in Division 3. Frankenmuth now is 32-4 this spring, heading into Saturday’s District on its home diamond.
You started out coaching with the plan of sticking in it for four years. What about the game of softball and coaching it has kept you around for 33?
My priorities in coaching and philosophies have changed (over the years). In my fourth year of coaching, my sister was a senior. That year we turned the program around and started winning games. They were competing. The competition has had me coming back since, along with learning more about the game.
Did you always want to coach softball? If not, what did you want to do?
No; the funny thing is that I graduated from Bay City All Saints after I won a state championship in baseball. After I graduated, I wanted the baseball job at Bay City All Saints, but they said I was too young to coach baseball. However, they did want me to stick around, and they gave me the softball job.
In your 33 years of coaching, what has been the most important piece of advice you’ve been given?
I read this somewhere; if you just keep working hard, good things happen to good people. Though my philosophies have changed, this philosophy has been pretty solid. I’ve also had girls come back from playing with me that say how I had taught them discipline, and that they have carried that with them to the next steps in their lives. As a coach, hearing that from past players is very rewarding.
Are there specific seasons or teams that stick out more than the rest? If so, why?
In 1999, we won states at Bay City All Saints. We set the state record with a 44-3 record. This record I believe is still intact. (All Saints’ 44 wins that spring is now tied with the 2007 White Lake Lakeland team for the most in one season.)
Last year (2011), Frankenmuth got to the Finals and lost in Battle Creek (to Clinton, 4-2 in the Division 3 championship game). It was the first time Frankenmuth had been there since 1991.
What piece of advice can you give to aspiring coaches?
Listening is an important skill. Learn from other coaches. If you think you know it all, you don’t. Every time you go to clinics, you pick up something and learn something new. You must be able to adapt. Every season is different, as you get a new set of players and personalities to deal with.
How long do you plan on coaching?
This is a very open-ended date. I was actually going to quit three times in my career for various reasons, but I’m glad that I stuck it out. Given that my health stays good and I continue to wake up every morning excited about coaching, I would love at least another five years in Frankenmuth.
PHOTOS courtesy of The Frankenmuth News.
On the basketball court, no woman in Michigan high school history has led her team to more victories than Bloomfield Hills Marian’s Mary Cicerone. And few schools have stacked more championships over the last decade than Ann Arbor Pioneer under the guidance of athletic director Eve Claar.
To celebrate those accomplishments, and more significantly their impacts on thousands of students over decades in those leadership positions, Cicerone and Claar have been named the 37th and 38th recipients of the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Women In Sports Leadership Award.
Each year, the Representative Council considers the achievements of women coaches, officials and athletic administrators affiliated with the MHSAA who show exemplary leadership capabilities and positive contributions to athletics. Cicerone and Claar will receive their awards during this year’s WISL Conference, Feb. 4-5 at the Crowne Plaza Lansing West.
Cicerone retired from coaching the Bloomfield Hills Marian girls basketball team after the 2021-22 season with a record of 707-233 since taking over the program in 1983 – making her the fourth-winningest coach in MHSAA girls basketball history, and the winningest woman to lead a program.
She guided the Mustangs to six Finals championships, in Class A in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 1998 and back-to-back in Division 1 in 2014 and 2015. Her teams also won 19 Catholic High School League Central division championships, 20 overall CHSL League titles and reached the MHSAA Semifinals seven times, also finishing Class A runner-up in 1997.
“Mary Cicerone is a legend because she’s won hundreds of games and many championships, and those measurables of her success speak for themselves,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “But her commitment to her teams, her sport, and leadership in women’s athletics as a whole contributed just as significantly to her tremendous legacy.”
In addition to receiving several local and statewide coaching awards over the years, Cicerone has been inducted into Halls of Fame by the University of Detroit Mercy (2007) as a player and as a coach by the Catholic High School League (1998), Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan (2017) and Marian (2022).
She has served as an officer for the Catholic League Women’s Coaches Association and in 2009 received the CHSL’s Ed Lauer Person of the Year Award.
“Being a young girl wanting to play all kinds of activities, we never had much opportunity and I participated in whatever I was able and just felt like that was something that was important to me, my friends and everybody I was associated with was always part of the same group,” Cicerone said. “I felt like (advocating for women’s sports) was something I should do because it was so important for me, and I appreciated everything everybody did for me and my friends to be able to play.
“It’s not something I needed to do – just something I wanted to do. I stepped into that role, cherished it, worked really hard at it, and hopefully made great memories – for me, for sure – and for others.”
Claar is in her 21st year as an athletic director, and over the last decade has guided one of the state’s largest athletic programs in terms of both programs and student-athletes, with 36 varsity teams and nearly 1,110 participants. The Pioneers have had ample local and statewide success during her tenure, including claiming 16 MHSAA Finals championships across seven sports over the last eight school years (including this one). Most recently, Pioneer tied for most Finals championships among Lower Peninsula schools in 2020-21 with four, were second in 2021-22 with four more, and last school year tied for most in the Lower Peninsula again with three titles.
Claar began in athletic administration as Pioneer’s assistant director from 2003-06, and she became athletic director at Bloomfield Hills Lahser at the start of the 2006-07 school year. She took over the program at Ypsilanti Lincoln as athletic director in 2009 before returning to Pioneer in 2012.
“Eve Claar continues to show the way for her programs to succeed on the field while keeping in mind the big picture of what’s important in school sports,” Uyl said. “She’s invested in providing the best experiences for Pioneer’s student-athletes, and athletes competing throughout the Southeastern Conference, while also providing support to AD colleagues and coaches who look to her for leadership and expertise.”
Claar has served as the Southeastern Conference secretary since 2009 and is the league’s sport director for softball and field hockey. She has been president of the Michigan Field Hockey League since 2018 and has served on several MHSAA sport and site selection committees and as part of the MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Award selection committee. Before becoming an athletic director, Claar worked five years in the Detroit Pistons/Detroit Shock community relations department.
She was named a Regional Athletic Director of the Year in 2019 by the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA). In 2021, she helped found the Southeastern Conference’s Women in Sports Leadership Conference for student-athletes from the league’s 14 schools.
“I started with (longtime Pioneer AD) Lorin Cartwright before me, and she was always a mentor for me. I’ve always had female leaders and mentors whether in sports for high school, over to Pioneer, with the Shock with Nancy Lieberman – I’ve been around amazing female leaders,” Claar said. “I feel at this point, 21 years into doing this, now it’s upon me to do the same. I’ve been honored when I’ve had other athletic directors reach out, other female ADs ask for support, and I’ve been able to give the support that (my mentors) gave me.”
Cicerone is a 1978 graduate of Coopersville High School, where she was a basketball all-stater and ran track, and she then starred on the basketball court at Detroit Mercy, leading the Titans to three Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) state titles and graduating as Mercy’s all-time career assists leader while earning a bachelor’s degree in education. She won the 1982 President’s Award as U-D’s most outstanding female student-athlete.
She taught primarily physical education at Marian beginning with the 1983-84 school year through her retirement 39 years later, and also coached track & field for a season at the start of her teaching career.
Claar is a 1991 graduate of North Farmington High School and earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University and master’s from Detroit Mercy. She received a teaching certificate from Wayne State University and education leadership certificate from Eastern Michigan University, and earned her certified athletic administrator (CAA) designation in 2008. Claar played basketball, volleyball and softball at North Farmington and was a BCAM Miss Basketball Award finalist in 1990. She continued as a standout at CMU, finishing her playing career in 1995, and remains among the most accomplished 3-point shooters in program history. She also served as a graduate assistant women’s basketball coach at U-D for two seasons.
More than 800 participants – mostly female high school student-athletes from across the state – have registered to attend this year’s sold-out WISL Conference, the 26th in the series that remains the first, largest and longest-running program of its type in the country.
The opening address Feb. 4 will be presented by Cathy George, the all-time winningest volleyball coach in Michigan State University history and the first head coach of the newly-created Grand Rapids Rise professional volleyball franchise. Current MSU volleyball coach Leah Johnson will speak during the morning’s general session Feb. 5 on the conference’s theme “Share the Vision” – she finished her second season leading the Spartans in the fall after coaching Illinois State University from 2017-21 and taking ISU to the NCAA Tournament her last four seasons before leaving for East Lansing.
Several workshops will be offered over the two days, with topics including coaching, teaching and learning leadership; sports nutrition and performance, and empowerment and goal-setting. Presenters are accomplished in their fields and represent a wide range of backgrounds in sport. A complete itinerary is available on the WISL page.
The first Women In Sports Leadership Award was presented in 1990.
1990 – Carol Seavoy, L’Anse
1991 – Diane Laffey, Harper Woods
1992 – Patricia Ashby, Scotts
1993 – Jo Lake, Grosse Pointe
1994 – Brenda Gatlin, Detroit
1995 – Jane Bennett, Ann Arbor
1996 – Cheryl Amos-Helmicki, Huntington Woods
1997 – Delores L. Elswick, Detroit
1998 – Karen S. Leinaar, Delton
1999 – Kathy McGee, Flint
2000 – Pat Richardson, Grass Lake
2001 – Suzanne Martin, East Lansing
2002 – Susan Barthold, Kentwood
2003 – Nancy Clark, Flint
2004 – Kathy Vruggink Westdorp, Grand Rapids
2005 – Barbara Redding, Capac
2006 – Melanie Miller, Lansing
2007 – Jan Sander, Warren Woods
2008 – Jane Bos, Grand Rapids
2009 – Gail Ganakas, Flint; Deb VanKuiken, Holly
2010 – Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2011 – Ellen Pugh, West Branch; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2012 – Janet Gillette, Comstock Park
2013 – Barbara Beckett, Traverse City
2014 – Teri Reyburn, DeWitt
2015 – Jean LaClair, Bronson
2016 – Betty Wroubel, Pontiac
2017 – Dottie Davis, Ann Arbor
2018 – Meg Seng, Ann Arbor
2019 – Kris Isom, Adrian
2020 – Nikki Norris, East Lansing
2021 – Dorene Ingalls, St. Ignace
2022 – Lori Hyman, Livonia
2023 – Laurie Glass, Leland
PHOTOS Bloomfield Hills Marian coach Mary Cicerone, left, huddles with her team during an MHSAA Finals weekend, and Ann Arbor Pioneer athletic director Eve Claar welcomes John and Jim Harbaugh into the school's Pioneer Hall of Fame. (Claar photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Public Schools.)