As the Grand Haven track and field teams prepare for the Division 1 state championships this weekend at East Kentwood High School, adversity is not in short supply. A continued tradition of excellence has produced strong mentorship, pushing them through late-season mishaps and record-breaking heat. But, the looming pressure of the meet has gotten the best of the Bucs before.
The 13 athletes bound for Saturday’s championship meet is short a few big names after likely state champion Gabby Hentemann went down with a late-season injury and University of Michigan running commit Jack Nicholson missed his cut time by just one second.
“My message to the girls after the injury was, ‘I’m sad for Gabby, but we are still a great team without her. We have to keep pushing on and do as well as we can,” said Grand Haven girls head coach John Tarr.
“There are lessons to be learned there,” boys head coach Joe Nelson said. “Seize every opportunity, because you don’t know if there will be another one. We had Jack miss by a second, our 4x200 relay dropped the baton and there are injuries. You can’t assume there will be next year. You have to take advantage of everything you have in front of you right now.”
The Bucs heading to state are ready to take up that challenge and their potential is nothing to scoff at with top-eight aspirations almost across the board.
Charlie Young will take on the money heat in the 400-meter dash, gunning for a top-three finish. Junior Mason Mahacek will boast his versatility, looking to kiss the sky with a high finish in the pole vault and high jump events; while seniors Kassidy Burnside, McKenna Keefe and Jenny Ryan hope to break into scoring position in their last trip to state.
Burnside heads into Saturday flaunting top-10 seeds in both the 300 hurdles and the long jump, while Keefe sits just outside the top 10 in the pole vault. Ella Beringer will also be shooting for a single-digit finish in the high jump. A combination of those four, along with Kate Criswell-North and Avery Keefe sit within striking distance of a school record in the 4x200 relay.
Also qualifying for the boys were Joe Costello in the high jump; Kyle Eveland, Collin Takas and Timmy Kleyla as part of the 4x400 relay; and Eli Nelson in the pole vault.
The sprint-and field-heavy roster reflects the high work ethic of the Grand Haven teams and bodes well for their performance at the most exciting meet of the season.
“I feel like, in the events that you can get good at based on hard work, we are doing really well,” Nelson said. “It takes hard work to learn the field events, the 400 takes hard work, and I attribute that to our kids and how hard they worked all offseason and through the spring.
“The environment this year has been one of the best I’ve coached. The way they approach everything and all the hard work has been impressive. It is a really good group of kids.”
Success standards are easy to identify in the quantitative world of track and field, and the coaches and stars of Grand Haven’s state team have them well defined.
For girls coach John Tarr, it is all about scoring.
“We could score in the high jump, the pole vault, the 800 and the 4x200,” he said. “Kassidy has a real shot in the high jump. Once she hit 17-5 at regionals, that put her in a really good position. Ella is really cool under pressure and has a great shot in the high jump.
“Abby Buitenhuis is the third fastest 800 runner we have ever had and Mckenna could certainly score in the pole vault.
The girls are just hoping to go out with a bang. Senior representatives Keefe and Burnside have seen a thing or two at past state meets and hope they can exorcise some demons in their final go-around.
“I just want to perform the best that I can,” Keefe said. “In the past at state meets, I have felt a lot of pressure to do really well and I have underperformed. So, this year, I just want to treat it like any other meet and go as hard as I can and hopefully PR.”
“Same here,” Burnside added. “I just want a last chance to PR. I tend to get intimidated pretty easily, so just not worrying about the other people and running the best race I can is a goal.”
Physical and mental offseason training for Burnside has her coach convinced her heady state meet tendencies are long gone.
“Kassidy has had an up-and-down career with some injuries after a great freshman season,” Tarr said. “She worked really hard this winter and it has been a pleasant surprise with her. Her outlook is more positive and she is a lot more competitive and ready to race.”
The same goals hold true for the boys, who are gunning for hardware and maybe even a little history along the way.
“I’d love to take home some medals,” Nelson said. “I think our 4x400 team would really like to hit our school record. I’m not sure if it will be enough for a medal, but that would be successful, too.
“I would like Charlie to finish in the top five or even top three, that would be great. Mason would also like to get on that medal stand in the pole vault, and I think he has the capacity to do that. If he has a great day, he could also be in the thick of things in the high jump.
“After that, Joe is shooting for a personal record, and Eli, being a freshman, would love a PR. If he gets an opportunity at 14 feet, he would be on top of the world.”
While medals are driving the rest of the team, the star of the show is hoping his will feature some shine. An offseason of intense training outside of his typical discipline should power him to the top of the field.
“Last year, I wasn’t really happy with my state meet performance, so it is good to have another shot with a good year of running under my belt,” Young said. “Over the winter, I worked on being more fit and stuff like that, as well as developing my speed. The 400 ends up being an all-out sprint all the way around. This year, I trained a lot more so I have the endurance to make it all the way around.
“Hitting 47 seconds is probably the main goal. I think I can place top three if I really run my best.”
For altitude star Mahacek, balance has been the key to his success as he spent his season splitting time between two extremely technical disciplines.
“It has been a little tough going back-and-forth and splitting time,” he said. “Both are events that require a lot of form training. You definitely can't just go out and pick up pole vault. It takes a lot of training and commitment to figure out the form.
“I just really didn’t like running, but I still wanted to be involved in track,” he added. “That’s how I got into it.
“The goal is always to win, but I would feel accomplished with a PR.”
All goals and standards aside, the state meet is a different monster for even the most experienced runners.
“I think the scope of the meet got to me last year. It was pretty eye-opening,” Young said. “Now that I have competed there, I will be able to have a little bit more fun and be more relaxed. I’m excited to give it another shot.”
“It really is a circus,” Tarr said. “There are tents all over the place, you have to be listening and paying attention to what is happening and what you should be doing. We aren’t allowed to coach on the field so we have to make sure kids are coming to see us. That is where the experience comes in.”
“If you are a fan of track and field there is nothing like it,” Nelson said of the state meet. “It is awesome, but definitely a different experience.”
The Bucs are counting on a special team culture to lead them through the spectacle Saturday, predicated on a breadth of experience with four seniors, five juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen on the state team.
“The state meet is where you need experience,” Tarr said. “We have been fortunate enough to continually develop talent so that we always have some older kids teaching younger kids.”
“I want to attribute that to the leadership we have had over the past couple of years,” Nelson said of the wide age range. “The older kids have been great about nurturing the younger ones. Teaching them to how to work hard and not complain and get to businesses and how to enjoy track and field.
“Now, it is important to realize that we are competing in the meet, not just checking out the show.”
The circus is scheduled to begin with the pole vault, long jump and girls discus at 9:30 a.m., with running events following at 10 a.m.