Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.
Thank you, Bill Baker.
The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.
Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.
“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.
“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”
It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.
To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.
The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.
Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.
“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”
Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.
Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.
She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.
“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”
Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.
After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.
Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.
Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award
1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba
2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton
PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.
There is a basketball court 5,000 miles from Sterling Heights with “MHL” painted on the center court.
It’s not the name of a local basketball league in the village where it is located – Siricino, Macedonia. Instead, it stands for Madison, Haleigh and Lola, the three daughters of longtime Michigan basketball coach, referee and athletic director Loren Ristovski.
“My dad loved going back (to Macedonia),” said Madison Ristovski. “He’s probably gone every summer since about 2017. His whole family still lives there. He loved going and visiting and seeing everyone.
“It was always a goal of his to give back to where he came from. He and Mom donated to the village to build a soccer field and basketball court with lights and everything. It was a pretty big deal. It’s something he wanted to do for them back home. We were very proud he did that.”
Loren Ristovski, athletic director for Taylor schools, died earlier this month while on leave to have surgery on his foot. It was a shock to his family, friends, and the Taylor community.
“It was a heavy blow,” said Matt Joseph, girls basketball coach at Utica Ford and a longtime friend of the Ristovski family. “It was like getting kicked in the gut. Basketball was his passion. Next to his family, basketball was definitely No. 1. He loved the game and all the intricacies of it. He loved seeing kids excel.”
Ristovski emigrated from Macedonia to Michigan when he was 9. He went to high school at Hamtramck St. Florian, where he excelled at basketball. He went to Wayne State University to get a degree in criminal justice and had plans to become a lawyer.
Before he could take the Law School Admission Test, however, basketball came calling.
“He started coaching at Henry Ford High School and Fuhrmann Middle School,” Madison said. “Once he realized how much he enjoyed coaching, he decided to go into education. He stayed the entire time. He never went to law school.”
Loren Ristovski became the head coach at Harper Woods but gave that up when his daughters were ready to start playing in high school.
“He gave up coaching varsity at Harper Woods so he could be at every one of my games,” Madison said.
He also coached them as youngsters, often teaming with Joseph to coach an AAU team.
“I met him when Madison was 5,” Joseph said. “He and I decided to put our daughters in the same parks and recreation team, and next thing you know we were coaching AAU.”
With Ristovski’s tutoring, Madison, Haleigh, and Lola all excelled at the game, each playing Division I college basketball after standout careers at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett. In 2012, Liggett reached the Class C Final with all three starting. They combined for 55 of Liggett’s 57 points in the championship game, with Madison scoring 42 after earlier that week receiving the Miss Basketball Award.
Lola and Haleigh played at the University of Detroit Mercy, and Madison played at the University of Michigan. Today, Haleigh lives on the west side of the state and plays recreational basketball. Lola is a referee in the Catholic High School League as well as for the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and also works area Division III college games.
Madison is a teacher and the varsity girls basketball coach at Sterling Heights Stevenson.
“He taught us the game when we were very, very young,” Madison said. “We grew up in the gym with him and watched him coach his team. He coached me my whole life. He was very instrumental – he taught us all those things you need to become an athlete, and more importantly the things you need to do to succeed in life.”
Her dad is the reason she became a coach.
“Watching my dad coach and seeing the impact he had on his high school athletes and even the kids in our church community – it inspired me to want to coach as well and give back like he did,” she said. “I watched him with my teammates and the impact he had on them. I thought it would be so cool if I could do the same for others.”
Loren Ristovski left a legacy at Taylor, too. School officials recounted several stories of how he balanced athletic budgets with the needs of student-athletes. He would lead fundraising efforts, created the Bitty Ball program for youth basketball players and cheerleaders and helped students become certified officials – and then would hire them to officiate games.
“He didn’t say no,” said Taylor boys basketball coach Chris Simons. “We made it work. We didn’t go out and ask people for a bunch of money. We would just do it. We all pulled together and made it work. Loren did everything he could to make things as pretty and presentable as he could with the budget we had.”
Ristovski also put on summer camps at both Taylor and at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in Sterling Heights, where he lived. He commuted about an hour to Taylor every day.
“He loved Taylor,” Madison said. “He loved who he worked with and the students. He included us, too. My mom would run the ticket table or do the scoreboard clock. I don’t know how many times I sold tickets for volleyball tournaments with him. He loved his people and loved having us there with him.”
Loren Ristovski, who played professional basketball in Europe during the late 1980s, ran well over 20 marathons in his life, including the Boston Marathon. He was a registered MHSAA official for 16 years, and in the weeks before his passing he refereed a varsity game in Rochester with his daughter, Lola.
“He looked at basketball, I think, differently than other people do,” Madison said. “He saw it as a way to have relationships with other people, to help people achieve their goals and to find meaningful relationships with others. It was more than just a game to him.”
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) Loren Ristovski, far left, and wife Svetlana support their lineup of Division I basketball-playing daughters – from left: Madison, Haleigh and Lola. (Middle) Loren Ristovski heads an all-family officiating crew with Lola and his brother Dean Ristovski. (Below) The daughters’ initials “MHL” glow on the court the family funded in Macedonia. (Photos courtesy of Madison Ristovski.)