By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal

While a select few of our female track and field athletes prepare for their final meet of this chilly 2013 season at Saturday’s state finals, I couldn’t help but reflect back to what was unquestionably the ‘Golden Era’ for girls’ track – more than 30 years ago.

This year’s running of the state track championship will mark the 40th anniversary of the first track and field championships for the girls.

While 6,000 fans packed Michigan State’s Ralph Young Field for the Boys Class A State Championship back in 1973, much smaller numbers would see history in the making down the road at East Lansing High School.

Competition at the state level in 1973 was an all-class affair with the first team title going to Lincoln Park.  Skepticism certainly must have greeted the initial 366 competitors, representing 119 schools, as media coverage was limited to but a few short paragraphs in most newspapers, with summaries a scarcity.

The initial state title featured a star distance runner who is well known by area track fans. Clarkston High’s Sue Latter won the 440-yard dash in 57.1 and the 880-yard run in the fine time of 2:17.7.

Although many great distance runners have shown their talents at future girls’ state meets, it is likely that very few will surpass the accomplishments of Latter.   Latter would win the National Outdoor title in 1977 (2:03.8), and 10 years later posted the fastest 1500-meter time by a Michigan athlete in state history with a time of 4:04.48.

Now Mrs. Ron Addison, (also a former world class runner) Sue would see her daughter Becca Addison win the first of her three state titles for Grand Haven beginning with the 2008 season.

It certainly didn’t take long for girls’ track to explode onto the local scene. For about a 5-year span from 1977 until 1981, our area female athletes set a number of records that have stood the test of time for more than three decades.

It was following an exciting 1978 season when I met then-Muskegon High girls’ track coach Jim Kanaar at the inaugural running of a post-season track invitational, sponsored by the Detroit Free Press at Warren Fitzgerald High School.

Jim had brought a few of his own Muskegon athletes to this meet while I was there with North Muskegon’s star track performer, shot put and discus standout Annette Bohach.

Jim and I were duly impressed with the talent representing our area at this meet and we were in total agreement that some of these athletes should be exposed at prominent meets during the summer months.

The Free Press meet would lay the groundwork for the formation of the West Michigan Track Club, featuring, for the most part, area female track stars who would surpass our most optimistic of expectations over the next few years.

In 1978, the WMTC had just a skeleton crew of athletes, but with the success enjoyed by our local track stars, interest surged rapidly for the 1979 season.

Coach Dorothy Chiaverini’s Muskegon Catholic team was absolutely loaded with talent, from sprinters like fleet-footed Sue Bordeaux to a sprinter/high jumper deluxe in Terri Johnson.

Coach Dot’s Crusaders would win three state titles, and placed second in yet another, from 1975-1978.  North Muskegon had a powerhouse as well during this same span, winning three championships of its own from 1977-1980, with their only non title occurring when MCC dropped from Class B to C in 1978.

Area talent wasn’t limited to Muskegon Catholic and North Muskegon athletes, however.  To the north, our club featured a sprinter from the tiny school of Mason County Eastern – Maria Shoup.  Just to the west of her home in little Walhalla was a distance runner from Scottville who would set distance records that still stand today – Melanie Weaver.

Jim Kanaar and I were alerted to the attention of a young freshman from Mona Shores, who many felt would be a sure fire sensation.  And they were right!

Cathy Fitzpatrick, the daughter of the Muskegon area’s first Hall of Fame track sprinter, Jerry Fitzpatrick, would go on to have a track career that I feel should have her joining her dad in the MAHOF in the not-too-distant future.

With the likes of Bohach in the weight events, Fitzpatrick and North Muskegon’s Cindi Guy in the sprints, Shoup in the hurdles and Weaver in the distance events, this group was talented in all disciplines of the sport.

If there was any one event where the WMTC was overloaded with talent, it had to be in the high jump.  There was one particular meet that will stick with this old coach for years to come.  And, it occurred in of all places, the little town of Dowagiac in 1979.

Jim and I piled in a number of female athletes in each of our vans for the short trek to Southwestern Junior College for a very low profile track meet.  But what talent we had on that track that Saturday afternoon in mid-June of 1979!

And nowhere was this talent more in evident than the high jump.  Among our competitors were three girls who were state champions in this event, Terri Johnson, Rhonda Filius from Mona Shores and Fruitport’s Karla Link.

It was strictly no contest as all three of our gals cleared 5-8 or better that afternoon.  It also might have been the day that Terri Johnson earned herself a scholarship to Alabama as she amazed the few track buffs in attendance by becoming the first girl in state history to clear 6-0 in the high jump, the same winning height for the boys in last week’s Meijer West Michigan Invitational Track Meet.

Link, Filius, and Johnson would all earn track scholarships, with Johnson winning two outdoor high jump championships in 1981-82 at the prestigious Southeast Conference outdoor championships.

It has now been 36 years since Terri performed her magic at the MHSAA state finals, yet her mark of 5-9 in 1977 still stands today as the Class B/Division 3 state record.

Among the many highlights from this era was a National AAU event for high schools athletes that took place in UCLA in 1981.

We were sending a rock solid group of sprinters to this national meet, but the event that especially drew my interest was the 4×400 relay.

I must confess, however, that I had to perform a little skullduggery to even get our relay team entered in this event.  While filling out the meet entry form, I was faced with a bit of a problem.  When the application asked for our best time in the relay, I couldn’t come up with a mark, as we had never competed in this relay.

When I explained this to the meet director over a phone call, he was adamant that we had to have posted a time, and verifiable in a newspaper write-up.

I called a sportswriter friend at The Chronicle and he graciously inserted a brief paragraph deep into the bowels of a daily paper with a fictitious time – and meet – that never took place.

Then it was up to the gals to vindicate my little falsehood.  And did they ever!

“You also lied to get me into the pentathlon,” Maria Shoup quickly added in a recent conversation. “I had never run a pentathlon before in my life, but you thought I would be good in that event.  Annette Bohach gave me a few tips in the shot put and I was able to take third place.”

On a few instances, Jim and I would accommodate girls from outside our area that needed a club to compete for in their quest to procure a track scholarship.

Kanaar had befriended a coach from the Detroit area who had an athlete who was in need of a club.  The girl was Kathi Harris, an 800-meter runner at Walled Lake Central High School.

Teamed up with Harris on our relay team were our two local speedsters in Maria Shoup and Cathy Fitzpatrick.  We had another girl that was scheduled to take the long journey out to California, but shortly before the meet, she came up lame.

To the rescue came a sprinter from Fruitport who was only scheduled to compete in the short sprints.  Never had Cindy Hatt run a distance longer than 200 meters in a meet.  On this day, Cindy ran the race of her life and this talented foursome shocked the heavily favored California competitors by winning the event.

“I anchored that relay and I don’t remember it even being close,” reflected Shoup.  “Kathi Harris was really good, but she was the girl that kept trying to sneak out at night,” confessed Maria recently.  “Cindy Haat ran her leg in about 58 seconds and Cathy Fitzpatrick was just terrific.

“I remember that the LA Flashettes finished second behind us.  To beat the Los Angeles Flashettes, and be from little West Michigan was pretty cool,” said Shoup.

“All six of the girls we took to this meet placed in this meet, including recent Fruitport Hall of Fame inductee Karla Link,” recalled Kanaar, who accompanied the girls on this long trip.

“Those girls earned their way out to California by working car washes and all that stuff, and all of the girls placed in the nationals and earned college scholarships.”

Shoup, Fitzpatrick, Link and Harris all would receive scholarships to Division I Universities.  Fitzpatrick would be a successful sprinter at the University of Virgina.  Shoup won many Mid-American titles while competing for Western Michigan University where she would eventually be inducted into their sports Hall of Fame.

And Harris amazed many, including this author, when at the age of 33; she would win the National Championship in the 800 meters in 1987, becoming the second female to break the 2-minute barrier. Harris just missed a berth on our 1986 Olympic team when she placed fourth at the 1996 Olympic Trials.

Whenever you get a chance to visit one of our local gymnasiums, take a look at the track record boards for the girls.  You would be amazed at how many records from this era that have never been bettered.

Take the West Michigan Conference track championships for an example.  Seven records from this era (1977-1980) still stand today.  And there is little doubt that Annette Bohach would have the shot put record if they had been using the 4-kilo iron ball in 1979.

Following her graduation from NMHS, Bohach went to the National Jr. Championship at Indiana University and, in her only meet in her senior season using the 4-kilo ball; she won the national title and a berth on the USA team that faced Russia that summer. Her winning effort of 47-9 is 7 feet better than the posted existing record.

The oldest record at the WMC Conference Meet is the 200-meter dash record set by Cindi Guy back in 1977.  They did not run the 100-meter dash (they were still competing at the 100-yard distance), or I’m confident that Guy, the state champ in the 100 dash in 1980, would hold the metric record as well.

Of the many years I served as the public address announcer (more than 30 years), my most memorable moment at all these meets was Cathy Fitzpatrick’s performance in 1982.

More than 30 years has passed since that memorable day, yet Fitzpatrick still holds meet records, as well as the area’s all time bests, in the 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes. Then, to add to her legacy, Cathy received the baton on the final leg of that meet’s 4×400, more than 30 yards from the race leader (many say further).  With the crowd on its feet in absolute awe, Fitzpatrick made up the deficit and led her team to victory.

It looked like the sky was the limit for the Mona Shores comet. However, the following Monday, at the tail end of practice, Cathy strained a muscle in her leg that would leave her doubtful if she would be healthy enough to defend her state 100 yard-dash title at the upcoming state meet.

Not risking further damage to her leg, Mona Shores Coach Dan Hamilton scratched Cathy from the 100.

With very little training over the next few weeks leading up to the state meet, Cathy was able to qualify in the 200 and 400 meters with victories at the local regional qualifier.

In her heat of the 200-meter semifinals at the state final, Cathy won her heat with a time of 24.2 seconds, a record that stood as the state record for an amazing 24 years.  Later that summer, Cathy would improve her all time area best down to 23.9 while placing among the leaders at the AAU Nationals in Los Angeles.

For even further proof of the complete domination of this era, check out those City Meet track records for the girls.  Of the 13 events that were run from 1977-82, nine of those 13 records belong to the girls from the Golden Era.

And why were these female track stars so dominant in this period as opposed to today’s athletes?  Certainly a major factor contributing to their success was that the sport of track and field was often the only spring sport offered at many of the local schools.

For starters, track and field was the only spring sport for girls at Muskegon Catholic and North Muskegon.  The proliferation of other spring sports has unquestionably reduced the numbers of those going out for track.

With Title IX still in its infancy from 1977-82, many of our local track stars were able to procure much needed track scholarships.

Bohach, who became the first area female track star inducted into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame, won numerous Big Ten titles in the shot put, and twice made it into the finals in the USA Olympic Trials.

Weaver became a Big Ten champion at the University of Michigan while Shoup was a stellar star at WMU. Both Shoup and Weaver have been inducted into the Ludington Area Sports Hall of Fame and Fitzpatrick should be a good choice to join Bohach in our local chapter as well.

When I informed Maria that I’m trying to push Cathy into our local hall of fame Maria said:  “She’s not in the hall of fame down there? How could she not be in it?  That’s ridiculous – She was terrific,” said Shoup.

Jim Kanaar and I, together with many of other local track athletes put a lot of miles on those vans more than three decades ago.  Included among those less than exotic destinations were places like Sterling, Ill., Salem, Ohio and Manhattan, Kansas, just to name a few.

“We provided them the opportunity to go on and become good citizens and have a great college experience. And they all went on and did exactly that,” remarked a proud Kanaar.

“Those were good times,” said Kanaar in closing.

Who knows what sports Fitzpatrick, Shoup, Bohach, Guy, Weaver, Johnson and others might have pursued if they had been available during their era.  For this old coach anyway, I’m sure glad they were left with just track.  They surely were very special.

Contact Jim Moyes at [email protected]