An increasing number of high-profile athletes and coaches are becoming more vocal about the importance of a well-rounded adolescent athletic experience. More and more parents and athletes, so it seems, are heeding that advice.
That’s the case in Bronson, a town of fewer than 2,500 residents that manages to keep rolling out successful varsity sports programs. Or perhaps it’s that athletes in Bronson never bought into sports specialization as much as other communities in the first place.
Bronson athletic director and Vikings varsity volleyball coach Jean LaClair, who received the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s 2015 Women in Sports Leadership Award, said it’s critical at a smaller school such as Bronson to emphasize participation in more than one sport.
But, through decades of coaching, she’s seen the effects of athletes choosing a narrow focus.
“I think for most schools and most sports, we’re seeing our numbers dwindle,” she said. “I believe that a lot of parents take their kids to travel ball, and it’s taking them out of high school sports. I think club sports are kind of hindering our high school athletics.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association reports that six percent of high school athletes go on to play in NCAA programs, and as of 2012 fewer than two percent of high school athletes earned an NCAA Division I scholarship (of any amount), according to a CBS MoneyWatch report. Fewer than eight percent ever play a varsity sport at any collegiate level, according to a study by ScholarshipStats.com.
It’s an admirable dream, but an unlikely one. And along with that gamble comes the great possibility of burnout. Some studies have also suggested that young athletes competing in only one sport year-round are at a higher risk of injury. On top of that, specialization doesn’t seem to improve those odds.
“If you want a (college) coach to know about you, just do some work and they’ll know about you,” LaClair said. “That’s how I look at it. If you’re good enough, a coach is going to see you. You don’t have to go to a club tournament to be seen.”
Though participation in multiple sports is commonplace amongst both genders at Bronson, girls sports in particular have reaped the rewards of such commitment.
Look no further than the Vikings’ Division 3 runner-up performance in softball last spring (they lost to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in the Final), which seemed to fire up the volleyball squad this past fall.
Bronson’s netters tore through the postseason en route to a Class C volleyball championship, earning some revenge by beating Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in three games.
It was the Vikings second MHSAA title since 2009.
Four athletes who competed on both teams are currently playing basketball: senior Kelsey Robinson, sophomore Adyson Lasky, sophomore Kiana Mayer, and sophomore Payton Robinson. Senior Alexa Ratkowski, an all-state selection in volleyball, also is on the basketball team.
Of the 13 volleyball players who hoisted a trophy at Kellogg Arena in November, six are two-sport athletes and seven are three-sport athletes.
And of the 11 varsity basketball players currently on the Vikings’ girls roster, eight played volleyball and a total of 10 participated in a fall sport.
As Kelsey Robinson’s prep career winds down, she believes playing several sports has made her better at each one. Not to mention she and her classmates find joy in the memories created through a variety of competitive situations.
“It’s just really fun to do different things,” said Robinson, a defensive specialist in volleyball, a former cross country runner, a guard in basketball and a third baseman and centerfielder in softball. “We don’t have a lot of the numbers, but we have the people who are willing to put in the hard work, even if it’s not their best sport. Each season is only three to four months at the most. So it keeps things exciting.”
Some do take part in the club scene on a smaller, more local level. Most take advantage of the coaches at Bronson who are generous with their time.
“I’ll get into the gym with any kid any time they want to,” LaClair said.
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 [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Bronson volleyball players celebrate clinching the Class C championship at Kellogg Arena in the fall. (Middle) Then-freshman catcher Payton Robinson prepares to catch a pop fly during last season's Softball Finals weekend at Secchia Stadium.
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.)