Before most high school students have blistered their fingertips on a hot Pop-Tart in a rush to get out the door and to school on time, White Pigeon sophomore Claycee West has already completed a rigorous cross country workout.
It’s not for love of the sport that West logs miles at 5:10 a.m. with longtime Chiefs coach Pete Mestelle. She doesn’t even like the sport. But with volleyball also demanding her precious time, the two-sport fall athlete gets in her workouts whenever she can. And in this case, it’s before the sun comes up.
When that doesn’t work with her packed schedule, she’ll squeeze in a run when the nets and the sun start to come down.
West, who had a phenomenal freshman year, which included a scholar-athlete award on top of three varsity letters and a trio of Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference all-league team nods in volleyball, basketball and track & field, made the mature decision to tack on another athletic endeavor in order to see improvement in all the others.
“It’s just keeping me in shape,” said West, who also participates in club volleyball and basketball during the offseasons. “(Mestelle) really got me in shape for track season and he has put a lot of work into me. I couldn’t do anything without him. He’s helping me tremendously.”
It works both ways. Mestelle’s girls cross country teams in recent years have struggled to put enough runners on the course to register team scores. This year, though, the Division 4 Chiefs have more than 10 girls on the roster. West, with no long distance running experience, is already vying for the top spot.
She may not reap the same rewards right away as she did in her other sports, but West’s competitive nature won’t allow her to be just a participant.
“She is probably going to be our No. 1 or No. 2 runner,” Mestelle said. “It’s going to help her with her mind. It’s not just running; you have to think about what you’re doing. Her form has really come a long ways.”
West is grateful to Mestelle for making himself available so early in the morning and the commitment required to make playing two sports at once possible.
Mestelle made light of his pre-dawn pledge.
“It helps keep me young,” he said.
West is a middle and outside hitter for the volleyball team, she’s the returning point guard and leading scorer for the basketball team and she qualified for the 2017 Lower Peninsula Division 4 MHSAA Track & Field Finals in both the 200 and 400 meters last spring. Her time of 1 minute, 00.89 seconds in the 400 was good for seventh place and all-state status.
In hoops, West scored 236 points as a rookie with 43 assists, 58 steals, 14 blocks and 89 rebounds.
But cross country is an entirely new challenge.
“I love to win, and I’m very competitive,” West said. “Honestly, at first (in cross country) I wasn’t trying to win. We had our first meet last week and I did OK. It killed me to see how I did compared to how I perform in other sports. I think that will change because I want to win. It’s hard for me because I dislike running, so it’s a mental challenge more than anything.”
It may sound contradictory, but West claims the demanding schedule keeps her fresh mentally and physically.
“I think the biggest thing is that I don’t wear myself out,” she said. “I love what I do, but if I do one thing for way too long, I’m going to get tired of it. I love so many different things that it’s easy for me to change it up. It works out my body differently. I don’t overwork myself just in one area.”
In a time when the topic of sports specialization in high school is heavily debated, West is a case study in how a multi-sport experience has far more benefits than that of a one-track approach. And for a small school such as White Pigeon, that attitude is vital to fielding competitive squads.
“So driven,” White Pigeon girls basketball coach Brooke McClure said of West. “She works really hard. Anything you want in a kid, a student-athlete, she’s it. She’s been like this since she was a little girl. We’re really fortunate to have her. She inspires other girls to do better in school and in sports.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: White Pigeon's Claycee West awaits a serve during a volleyball match. (Middle) West works to get around a defender during last basketball season. (Photos courtesy of Wes Morgan.)
Kent City cross country coach Jill Evers has been named the 2021-22 National Coach of the Year for girls cross country by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.
Evers was selected by a committee including representatives from all eight NFHS sections – Michigan is part of Section 4 with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The following brief bio includes an excerpt from Evers’ coaching philosophy, which nominees were asked to submit after being identified as candidates for the awards.
Jill Evers joined the Kent City athletic staff as an assistant cross country coach in 1991 after previously coaching a season each at Allegan High School and Allegan Middle School. She took over Kent City’s girls and boys varsity cross country programs in 1993 and also has served as head girls track & field coach since 1993. She led Kent City’s girls cross country team to a Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final runner-up finish in 2021, the program’s second runner-up finish under her leadership, and she’s also guided Kent City’s girls program to 15 league and seven Regional titles and nine total top-eight Finals finishes. She previously was named an NFHS Section Coach of the Year for girls track & field in 2006 after leading Kent City’s girls track & field team to its first MHSAA Finals championship in that sport, and inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012. Evers also is a longtime science teacher at Kent City and advisor and mentor for a variety of school activities in addition to coaching.
“I know people say, ‘Athletics is an extension of the classroom,’ but I believe it's so much more than that. While participating in sports, young people can learn about themselves and others, challenge themselves and grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Athletics is where we learn life lessons, such as how to lose with grace, cheer for teammates and even opponents, win with humility, deal with adversity, empathize with others, respect all those involved, be grateful for healthy bodies and opportunities to compete and push ourselves beyond what was originally thought possible. Success is different for each person, but I believe cross country lends itself to individual success. Everyone can improve and learn lifelong healthy habits. Everyone can set and achieve goals. Those who aren't as fast often earn the respect of the more gifted runners because of their perseverance. It is my job as a coach to encourage, motivate, and challenge all students who want to participate, and then congratulate them for a job well done.”
Three more Michigan coaches earned honors in Section 4. Mark Posey was honored in boys golf after leading Big Rapids to a 10th-place finish in Lower Peninsula Division 3 in 2022 after four straight Finals runner-up finishes. (There was no LP boys golf season in 2020 due to COVID-19.) Lake Orion boys lacrosse coach Ronald Hebert was honored after guiding his team to the Division 1 Quarterfinals last spring after taking the Dragons to the Semifinals in 2021. Scott Werner was honored in girls track & field after leading Pewamo-Westphalia to a runner-up finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals. P-W shared the LPD3 Finals championship in 2021 and has won titles four of the last nine seasons (not counting 2020).
The NFHS has been recognizing coaches through an awards program since 1982.