By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor
To a generation of sports fans, Lake Placid, NY, will always conjure images of the “Miracle on Ice” orchestrated by the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team and the voice of Al Michaels counting down the seconds and asking, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Maureen Whidden grew up a sports fan in a sports household. She, too, has a memory of Lake Placid, but it’s unlike those of most other people in the world, let alone this country.
“Right from college I went to Lake Placid, NY, and was an intern for the Olympic Training Center, working operations and events,” she said. “I got to go down the bobsled run, which was awesome. We started from about halfway up and I clocked about 45 miles per hour. It was just cool.”
Now beginning her fourth year as athletic director at Houghton Lake High School, Whidden maintains a pace which on most days during the school year must feel like twice her speed down the icy track in Lake Placid.
A self-proclaimed gym rat, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her father, Rick Radulski, was the varsity boys basketball coach at Utica High School. When she was not in the gym, she was, “watching game film with the guys. That’s how I grew up.”
After earning a master’s degree in sport administration from Central Michigan University, it was off to Lake Placid, and on the fast track – literally – to launching her career.
The unexpected bobsled run opened Whidden’s eyes in more ways than the obvious thrill of the moment.
“It was my introduction to non-traditional sports such as luge, skeleton; just awesome sports. Those athletes are so strong. Real power and strength athletes,” Whidden said.
Following her internship, Whidden was hired by USA Taekwondo in Colorado Springs, where she worked for a year and a half while in the process being exposed to yet another sport.
Her path then led to operations with the US Olympic Committee, working at the headquarters for three years. Whidden was involved with National Governing Bodies, coordinating events and processing athletes’ stays at the headquarters from start to finish.
Though vastly different than the sports she followed growing up, she could easily see a common thread in the people who participated.
“All athletes have the same goals and the same values; the same drive,” Whidden said. “Not all of them get the same publicity. Taekwondo, for instance, didn’t get the publicity that basketball or soccer got.”
It was that type of experience that helped in her transition to heading up a high school program of 15 sports, a couple of which were in their infancy for the 2012-13 school year. Whidden called upon her USOC experience as she welcomed bowling and cross country to Houghton Lake.
“Bringing new students into the athletic world, or exposing others to a new sport, really opened my eyes,” Whidden said. “On the bowling team we have 12 kids who may have never played another sport in their lives, and they just went to the Regionals. It’s not just mainstream sports – football, basketball, baseball – that can succeed .”
The two additional sports were a welcome addition to Whidden’s workload, at a school where 23 percent of the student body participates in at least one sport, and only 11.5 percent suit up in two different uniforms.
She wishes the numbers were higher, but several factors are at play for the Class B school of 468 students in one of Michigan’s prime resort towns – with the economy and funding posing the highest hurdles.
“We’re one of the poorest counties in the state of Michigan, based on average income,” Whidden said. “Our student count has dropped in recent years. People come here during peak seasons and support our businesses, and that’s great, but people aren’t moving here.”
Some, in fact, are moving away, which has left Whidden looking for football and boys basketball coaches in each of her three years.
Yet, if there’s one thing clear when meeting Whidden, the challenge is not too daunting. It is worth noting that the recent additions of bowling and cross country came to fruition through old school dedication and heart; the programs are self-funded, and the coaches are not paid.
Whidden knows all about paying dues. This is just her first year as a fulltime staffer at the high school, after starting as a half-time employee and then moving to three-quarters-time.
“Our community support has been the most amazing aspect of this job,” Whidden said. “We don’t have the budget to pay our event workers: ticket takers, announcers, scorebook ... anybody. But, I’m never scrambling to find workers. That’s amazing to me.”
Whidden often brings extra “volunteers” along – twin 5-year-olds, Troy and Blake – to afford them the same opportunities she had as a child and start them down the right track.
PHOTO: Houghton Lake athletic director Maureen Whidden stands in front of the press box at her school's football stadium. This fall, she'll begin her fourth year guiding the athletic programs.
This is the third installment of a series, "Career Paths," focusing on the unsung contributions of athletic directors. See below for earlier installments.
A first-of-its-kind mentorship program is greeting more than 100 first-time high school athletic directors who are officially beginning their tenures at Michigan High School Athletic Association member schools with the start of the 2023-24 school year.
The “AD Connection Program” has matched those first-year high school athletic directors with one of eight mentors who have recently retired from the field and will now provide assistance as those new administrators transition to this essential role in school sports.
A total of 102 first-year high school athletic directors are beginning at MHSAA schools, meaning a new athletic administrator will be taking over at nearly 14 percent of the 750 member high schools across the state. Athletic director turnover at MHSAA high schools has reached 10 percent or more annually over the last few years, and it’s hoped that this additional mentorship will support athletic directors adjusting to the high pace and responsibilities of the position for the first time.
The AD Connection Program will build on training received at the required in-service program all new athletic directors must attend each fall. There is also a strong connection to programming from the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional development organization for the state’s athletic administrators.
"When you crystalize it, the AD Connection Program is an attempt for us to give a true year-long in-service to new athletic directors with people who have done it,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Brad Bush, who is coordinating the program and joined the MHSAA staff in January after more than two decades as an athletic administrator at Chelsea High School. “This also connects new ADs with a larger professional group, and it will culminate in March at the annual MIAAA conference, where there will be several face-to-face meetings with all ADs.
“These mentors are meant to become that first-year AD’s go-to person.”
Mentors will conduct frequent meetings with their cohorts. They also will meet monthly (or more) with each first-time athletic director individually via zoom, and at least once during the academic year face-to-face at the mentee’s school.
The eight mentors, noting their most recent schools as an athletic director, are Chris Ervin (most recently at St. Johns), Brian Gordon (Royal Oak), Sean Jacques (Calumet), Tim Johnston (East Grand Rapids), Karen Leinaar (Frankfort), Scott Robertson (Grand Haven), Meg Seng (Ann Arbor Greenhills) and Wayne Welton (Chelsea). Leinaar also will serve as the AD Connection Program’s liaison to the MIAAA, which she serves as executive director.
High school practices at MHSAA member schools may begin today, Monday Aug. 7, for the nine fall sports for which the MHSAA sponsors a postseason tournament. The AD Connection Program was approved by the MHSAA Representative Council during its annual Winter Meeting on March 24.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.3 million spectators each year.