By Steve Gunn

FRUITPORT TOWNSHIP – Just a few short years ago, Brendan Hamilton was the first star runner for the brand new cross country program at tiny Fruitport Calvary Christian High School.

Now he is back as a college graduate, beginning his second year as the head coach of the program that he helped put on the map at Fruitport Calvary.

Fruitport Calvary Christian cross country coach Brendan Hamilton during a meet on Monday. Photo/Jason Goorman

Hamilton will turn 24 this week, which is pretty young for a varsity head coach who works with some kids who aren’t much younger than him. But Hamilton said he’s already learned to love the coaching aspect, after spending so many years as a standout athlete.

“It definitely took me a little time to adjust, and I’m still learning,” said Hamilton, a 2015 graduate of Fruitport Calvary. “But I’m really happy that God presented me with the opportunity to work with kids. It’s something that I’ve discovered I have a passion for, and I hope to do it the rest of my life.”

Hamilton was already an established track star and varsity soccer and basketball player in the fall of 2014, when the school started its first full cross country season. He joined the team, but didn’t have a lot of time to spend with it, because the soccer team also played in the fall.

He only ran five or six cross country races that season, but proved to be a natural. He ended up finishing second at the GMAA City Meet and first at regionals, the finished 24th at the Division 5 state finals.

It was quite an accomplishment for a kid who was mostly a soccer player, and just dabbled in cross country for parts of one season.

“I always enjoyed playing soccer, I had the speed to beat people to the ball, but I wasn’t very good with the footwork,” Hamilton said. “Cross country was just something I excelled at, and I really enjoyed it.

“I liked it because you run a different course every time. A track is a track, and you are running laps in circles. In cross country there’s a different element. You run through trees and fields and there are different types of footing on each course. It’s a different feeling. It’s also fun to compete against 150-200 other runners.”

Hamilton encourages a Fruitport Calvary runner during Monday’s meet. Photo/Jason Goorman

Hamilton went on to run four years of cross country and track at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana.

In track, he was a National Christian College Athletic Association All-American three times in various relay events. In cross country, he was a two-time NCCAA national qualifier, as well as team caption during his junior and senior years.

He graduated in 2019 with a Bachelors degree in sports management and business, then came home and almost immediately was asked to take over the cross country program at Fruitport Calvary. 

He said the invitation came from Ruth Kramer, the previous head coach, who had to step aside due to time constraints. Kramer and Hamilton’s mother, former Fruitport Calvary track and cross country coach Carrie Hamilton, agreed to be his assistants.

Last year the Eagles had seven girls and one boy in the program, but still had their share of success.

The girls finished third at regionals and became the first Fruitport Calvary group to qualify as a team for the state cross country finals. 

One first-year runner, eighth-grader Tatum Dykstra, shaved about seven minutes off her 5K (3.1 mile) time over the course of the season, and came within 15 seconds of breaking the individual girls school record held by Lizzie Cammenga.

This year there are four girls and three boys in the program. Kyra Hamilton, the coach’s younger sister, is the only senior in the group.

Hamilton greets a runner on Monday. Photo/Jason Goorman

The teams are off to a pretty good start. On Monday Fruitport Calvary co-hosted the inaugural Eagle/Trojan Invitational with Fruitport High School, and several of Hamilton’s runners did very well.

Junior Ethan Cammenga finished fifth in the boys race. Kyra Hamilton, Dykstra and eighth-grader Ava Wilson finished fifth, eighth and fourteenth, respectively, in the girls race.

“Overall I am very happy with the effort put forth by the team today,” Hamilton said after the race. “As a coach, it’s great to see kids battle through heat and pain for the sake of representing Christ and the school. All seven runners showed great toughness and determination, and each individual ran a great race. There isn’t much more a coach could ask for.”

The challenge of working closely with young athletes, and inspiring them to improve as athletes and young men and women, is appealing to Hamilton.

He believes his own relative youth, combined with all the experience he gained as a successful athlete, make him capable of relating to high school kids.

“I have been through a lot of the things that they go through, and it’s still fresh in my mind, so I might relate to them in a way that maybe some older coaches might not,” said Hamilton, who works for Prestige Landscaping Supply, and is a part-time firefighter for Fruitport Township.

“I just enjoy seeing kids’ worth ethic evolve. It’s not that they didn’t always work hard, but they didn’t always know how to push themselves while running a race. It’s a different kind of mental toughness. It’s fun to help them with that and be a part of that.”