By Geoff Kimmerly
A variety of leadership styles are effective. Many leaders talk. Others save their voices, instead showing the way by walking the walk.
Similarly, a variety of characteristics serve as building blocks for those who will their teams to success.
Leaders can be created equal – but from different combinations of pieces.
Covering MHSAA athletes from all over the state over the last three years for our Second Half site, we’ve had plenty of opportunities first-hand to watch the best of these traits shine through.
Following are some of what we’ve seen make champion leaders:
“I don’t really think anybody in Michigan besides these 19 guys, our four coaches, the trainers and obviously our parents believed we could do this. We knew all along that if we caught fire at the right time, some bounces would go our way … and we all just busted our butts the whole six games.” –Farmington goaltender John Lethemon, in March, after his team finished an unanticipated (by most) run by winning the Division 3 hockey title with a 2-1 victory over Sault Ste. Marie.
Vision, for a leader, includes seeing possibilities when others fail to see potential. Farmington had never won an MHSAA hockey title – and found itself facing 16-time champ and heavy favorite Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood in a Quarterfinal. But Lethemon put his skills behind his vision, carrying his team with a combined 110 saves over Quarterfinal, Semifinal and Final victories.
“When our team saw it, we thought, ‘That’s just Allie.’ With Allie, it doesn’t matter if you’re the slowest person or just started (running), she wants to cheer you on. Her thought is everybody should be cheered on, no matter what.” – Ann Arbor Huron girls cross country coach Tim Williams, describing his athletes’ reactions when they saw teammate Alexandria Cell running with Dearborn Divine Child’s Mariah Fuqua during a 2012 race as Fuqua worked to finish for the first time.
Cell closed her high school cross country career last season with a strong 35th place in a competitive Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final. But she’ll likely be remembered more by both Huron and Divine Child supporters for the leadership she showed in a regular-season race – when she guided home a runner from another team. Cell, then a junior, had finished at the Detroit Catholic Central Invitational and was jogging for a cool-down when she noticed Fuqua approaching the course’s midway point. Fuqua planned to end her race there – she’d been building stamina since trying the sport for the first time the year before, but had never completed a course – but Cell, first running circles around her and then next to her, encouraged Fuqua to keep going past the 2-mile marker and past the finish line for the first time.
“(Jason) Alessi’s … a guy who comes around once every 15, 20 years. You’ve got to take advantage of him when you have him. He’s been awesome for us, and today he was a big-time leader for us.” – Birmingham Brother Rice boys lacrosse coach Ajay Chawla, on June 7, after the Warriors defeated Detroit Catholic Central 23-7 to win the Division 1 championship.
An athlete’s knowing how to win is nearly as difficult to describe as it is to learn. But there’s no question it pays off when titles are on the line. Alessi helped the Brother Rice boys lacrosse team to four MHSAA championships and the football team to three more, and not just playing bit parts – he’s listed twice in the MHSAA lacrosse record book and three times in the football records for accomplishments in championship game play. It’s tough to know how to win until an athlete does so – but that knowledge is invaluable in leading others to do the same.
“Everyone looks up to the seniors. The seniors are just like top dogs. They lead the younger ones, and they try to keep that motivation through them and keep the enthusiasm to keep the tradition going.” – Battle Creek St. Philip hitter Sierra Hubbard-Neil after leading the Tigers to a three-set win over Waterford Our Lady on Nov. 23 to secure an eighth straight MHSAA title.
It was tough to believe the St. Philip contingent at last fall’s Finals as it explained how some outsiders doubted the Tigers would remain atop Class D in 2014. But it’s a fact that St. Phil tied the MHSAA record for most consecutive volleyball championships despite only one returning starter from 2013 – four-time all-state hitter Sierra Hubbard-Neil. Obviously she provided a good starting point – she had 19 kills in the Final match – but it was up to her and new senior leaders to bring an inexperienced team back to championship level.
“Jonathan (Gurnee) is the All-American kid who fought for the success of his team. Along the way, he broke a few records. Of course, we will miss his ability next year. But what I am going to miss most is his presence. He led by action and deed. He was the consummate captain. He epitomized Dow High tennis.” Midland Dow boys tennis coach Terry Schwartzkopf, in 2011, after Gurnee finished his final high school season with the most wins in MHSAA boys tennis history.
Gurnee played No. 4 singles his first two seasons, moving to No. 3 as a junior before earning the opportunity to challenge for the top flight as a senior. He faced junior teammate John Templeman in a No. 1 singles challenge match and lost by such a small margin that Gurnee could’ve asked for a rematch. Instead, Gurnee recognized that Templeman at No. 1 was best for Dow, which would win the third of what has become five straight MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 team titles. Gurnee tied the MHSAA single-season record with 41 victories that fall and also set the career wins record of 141.
“I’ve never had somebody who works harder than this girl. We’d get to the range at 2:45 and leave at 6 o’clock, and she’d be there until 7 o’clock every single night. It would be dark, and she’d be using street lights to putt and chip. She was grinding it out, not leaving any stone unturned. And the thing about it is all the other girls felt they needed to stay too.” – Plymouth girls golf coach Dan Young, about top player Kelsey Murphy after Plymouth won the 2012 Lower Peninsula Division 1 title and Murphy finished first in the individual standings.
Murphy had led the individual race with four holes to play at the 2011 LP Division 1 Final, but finished in third place. Plymouth as a team also finished third that year while in pursuit of the first girls championship in school history. Murphy returned to the Finals the following fall after playing all season with one goal in mind – to deliver that team title, which Plymouth won by 11 strokes. And she held on to a one-stroke lead after the first round to claim the individual title by the same margin.
“I don't think anybody's been in more big games than he has in football and basketball. He's a tough leader. He makes sure everyone is doing what they're supposed to do and holding themselves accountable. To have a leader on your team like that, everybody else follows.” –Muskegon boys basketball coach Keith Guy, describing senior guard and football team quarterback Deshaun Thrower after Thrower helped Muskegon to a 91-67 Class A Final win over Bloomfield Hills to earn the school’s first boys basketball title since 1937.
It’s not so much that Thrower scored 21 points, second-most on his team, or ran and passed the football team back to Ford Field and within a win of the Division 2 championship the previous fall for the second straight season. Those on-field contributions surely made differences – but so did his ability to guide his team after disappointment – be it the football team after the 2012 Final loss, or this season’s basketball team as it worked to rebound from a close Quarterfinal loss the year before and another football setback in the fall.
“She knew she wanted to play today. She is one of the most focused kids I know, and she was coming in here big and focused. It’s just amazing what that girl can do and what she can endure. She is a rally girl out there and got the troops ready in the seventh inning.” – Gladstone softball coach Ashley Hughes, speaking of pitcher Tinner Sharon, after the latter struck out the side in the seventh inning of the Division 3 Final in June to secure for the Braves a 2-1 title-clinching win over previously-undefeated Unionville-Sebewaing.
It’s difficult to find one word to describe the act of being clutch – raising one’s game to another level with everything on the line. But Sharon personified it. In her team’s Semifinal win, she gave up back-to-back homers in the seventh inning to force Gladstone to win the game in the eighth. That brief letdown no doubt keyed Sharon’s rise again with the team’s third MHSAA title on the line. A leader certainly doesn’t have to be the best athlete on a team – but teammates will follow a player who takes his or her game to a championship level when it matters most.
PHOTOS: (Top, from left) Battle Creek St. Philip’s Sierra Hubbard-Neil, Muskegon’s Deshaun Thrower and Gladstone’s Tinner Sharon all led their teams to MHSAA championships during the 2013-14 school year.