By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Every time Justice Ottinger sees one of the neon green T-shirts he designed on a student in the hallways at Newaygo High, he remembers fondly the “Ball Is Life, Organs Are Too” basketball game he planned this winter as an intern in the school’s athletic office.
Much more frequently, the Lions’ senior gives thanks for the family friend who inspired the event by giving Ottinger a kidney last June.
Ottinger is a recipient of an MHSAA/Lake Trust Credit Union “Community Service Award” for his creation of the “Ball Is Life, Organs Are Too” event on Jan. 20 that raised more than $4,000 for Gift of Life Michigan and provided an opportunity for 13 people to register as organ donors.
As noted, the event started as an assignment from Newaygo athletic director Kristen Melvin to create and organize some sort of benefit game. It turned into an opportunity for Ottinger to not only spread the word about something that’s given him a better life, but also a chance to honor donor “Uncle” Tom Linsley for doing so.
“As soon as she said it, I said ‘organ game.’ There was nothing else. Organs mean so much,” Ottinger said. “There are a lot of people waiting for organs, and I don’t think people know the seriousness of this as much as they should. (I did it) just to get people to be aware of that, that organ transplants are a big deal, organ donation is a big deal, and I’m a believer everyone should be signed up to be organ donors.”
The Community Service Awards recognize contributions by Michigan’s high school student-athletes away from the field. Ottinger, a three-sport athlete, will user the $1,000 award as a scholarship toward his education at Cornerstone University, where he’ll begin studies toward his goal of becoming a doctor. Six honorees total are receiving awards this spring; Second Half is featuring one a day this week.
Just last weekend, Ottinger won Lower Peninsula Division 3 Regional championships in the 110 and 300-meter hurdles, advancing to next week’s MHSAA Track & Field Finals in both events. It was a performance that showed how much the kidney has affected him physically. His 15.43 time in the 110 race was a personal record and 1.4 seconds faster than his best all of last year. His 300 time of 41.38 was his second-fastest this spring and more than three seconds faster than his best in 2016. He’s undefeated in the 300 this season.
Compare that to a year ago, when Ottinger “was doing it, but not doing it very good. I was still putting forth my best effort, and stuff like that, but the closer I got to the transplant date, in basketball and track more I could tell. I’d fall asleep all the time,” he said.
“Once I had a transplant, it was the total opposite.”
Ottinger’s family knew he’s need a kidney transplant eventually since he was 2 years old. Although it was a slow process, his kidneys gradually lost their ability to function over the next 15 years; by last summer, they were down to functioning at only six perfect effectiveness.
He was set to begin dialysis last summer when a donor was found – Linsley, who Justice affectionately calls “Uncle,” his dad’s best friend from when they attended Newaygo a generation ago.
Ottinger returned to play soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter, and set up his event for the Lions’ home game against Grant. Local businesses sponsored the event, and players and coaches wore the neon green shirts Ottinger designed. So did plenty of other people.
With Justice on the court, his mother Julie Long took over running the fundraiser during the game. But she had to get her son’s OK during warm-ups to order an additional 300 shirts – the first batch had sold out.
Gift of Life also sent a representative to sign up new donors on the spot, and Ottinger said the monetary donation will be used to help people who have had transplants pay hospital bills and for other costs that come with receiving a new organ.
He’s hopeful Newaygo will put on the event again next season, and Ottinger would like to do something similar at Cornerstone, where he’s set to join the track & field team.
His desire to become a doctor is boosted by what he’s experienced medically. But it’s rooted in something he’s already begun to fulfill.
“I’ve been in the hospital a lot, so I’d say that’s partially (the motivation),” Ottinger said. “But partially, I always have this urge to help people, make life better for people, and that’s driven me to do it too.”
The Community Service Awards are sponsored by the Michigan High School Athletic Association and Lake Trust Credit Union to recognize student-athletes' efforts to improve the lives of others in their communities. In addition to the $1,000 award, the Lake Trust Foundation is awarding an additional $500 to each honoree, to be donated to a non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization of the awardee’s choice.
PHOTOS: (Top) Justice Ottinger (center of photo) and some of his many Newaygo supporters hold up #JustDonate hearts while wearing T-shirts he designed for his “Ball Is Life, Organs Are Too” event. (Middle) Ottinger presents a check to Gift of Life Michigan. (Photos courtesy of Justice Ottinger.)
2017 Community Service Awards
With the first girls basketball games, wrestling matches and ski races joining the event schedule this week, an estimated 65,000 athletes will be competing across the 13 sports for which the Michigan High School Athletic Association sponsors postseason tournaments.
Girls basketball tipped off Monday, Dec. 4, and the first boys and girls wrestling meets may take place Wednesday, Dec. 6. The first girls and boys ski races may begin Saturday, Dec. 9, when they will join competition already underway in boys basketball, girls and boys bowling, girls competitive cheer, girls gymnastics, boys ice hockey, Upper Peninsula girls swimming & diving, and boys swimming & diving across both peninsulas.
The MHSAA winter schedule concludes this 2023-24 school year with the Girls Basketball Finals on March 23. This will be the first time since 2018-19 that the girls basketball tournament will finish the winter season, a switch made necessary by the start of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament March 22-23 and the possibility Michigan State University could host first-round games at the Breslin Center, where the MHSAA plays both its girls and boys basketball Semifinals and Finals.
Three more sports will incorporate changes this season related to MHSAA Tournament format or qualification.
For girls and boys bowling, Regionals will be conducted at eight sites – instead of the previous six – with each site qualifying to Finals its top two team finishers and the top seven singles for both girls and boys competitions. For the Team Bowling Finals, match play has been switched to a head-to-head, best-of-five Baker game format, whereas previously the format included regular games rolled by individual bowlers.
In girls gymnastics, an addition to criteria is expected to classify gymnasts more accurately as Division 1 (most skilled/experienced) or Division 2 for MHSAA Tournament individual competition. Athletes who have previously competed in a non-school event at either the Sapphire or Diamond Xcel levels would be required to compete at the Division 1 level for MHSAA postseason competition. These designations were added to other criteria used to determine an individual competitor’s division.
A change that led to much larger event fields at the Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals this fall is expected to produce the same at the LP Boys Swimming & Diving Finals this winter. Beginning this season, qualifying times have been determined based on the past five years of MHSAA race data, but also accounting for past numbers of qualifiers in each swim race – which should, as with the girls, allow for more boys to advance to the Finals in events where fields have not been full over the previous five seasons.
Additionally, the Competitive Cheer Finals will return to its traditional Friday-Saturday schedule, March 1-2 at McGuirk Arena at Central Michigan University, with Division 1 on Friday and Divisions 2-4 on Saturday.
This regular season, wrestlers have two more opportunities to compete. Teams are allowed two more dual meets (between two teams only, not to be converted into three or four-team meets), bringing the total allowed days of competition to 16 with no more than eight of those allowed for tournament-type events where a wrestler competes more than twice.
At those tournament-type events, wrestlers may now compete in up to six matches on one day of competition (as opposed to the previous five matches per day) – but an athlete may not wrestle in more than 10 matches over two consecutive days.
An adjustment to the awarding of free throws in basketball is likely to be the most noticeable in-game change for any winter sport this season. One-and-one free throws have been eliminated, and fouls no longer will be totaled per half. Instead, fouls are totaled and reset every quarter, and two free throws are awarded with the fifth foul of each quarter.
The 2023-24 Winter campaign culminates with postseason tournaments, as the championship schedule begins with the Upper Peninsula Girls & Boys Swimming & Diving Finals on Feb. 17 and wraps up with the Girls Basketball Finals on March 23. Here is a complete list of winter tournament dates:
Districts – Feb. 26, 28, March 1
Regionals – March 5, 7
Quarterfinals – March 12
Semifinals – March 14-15
Finals – March 16
Districts – March 4, 6, 8
Regionals – March 11, 13
Quarterfinals – March 19
Semifinals – March 21-22
Finals – March 23
Regionals – Feb. 23-24
Finals – March 1-2
Districts – Feb. 16-17
Regionals – Feb. 24
Finals – March 1-2
Regionals – March 2
Finals – March 8-9
Regionals – Feb. 19-28
Quarterfinals – March 2
Semifinals – March 7-8
Finals – March 9
Regionals – Feb. 12-16
Finals – Feb. 26
Swimming & Diving
Upper Peninsula Girls/Boys Finals – Feb. 17
Lower Peninsula Boys Diving Regionals – Feb. 29
Lower Peninsula Boys Finals – March 8-9
Wrestling – Team
Districts – Feb. 7-8
Regionals – Feb. 14
Finals – Feb. 23-24
Wrestling – Individual
Districts – Feb. 10
Boys Regionals – Feb. 17
Girls Regionals – Feb. 18
Finals – March 1-2
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 1.4 million spectators each year.