By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
Ability alone won’t get it done on the track.
That’s why the transformation of the Mancelona boys track & field team didn’t happen until the Ironmen added confidence to their talent.
“I always thought they could do it,” said Rick Ancel, Mancelona’s head coach. “I always thought we had a lot of talent. They just didn’t believe in themselves, and they ran mediocre. Once they started believing, the workouts changed. The times changed. There are very few people they are afraid of. They get beat on certain days, but they don’t beat themselves up. I think before this change they were afraid before they ever got on the track.”
Since they’ve developed some faith in themselves the Ironmen have been a force to be reckoned with, running undefeated through every regular-season invitational they competed in last year on the way to capturing the Ski Valley Conference title. With most of its squad returning this season, Mancelona has continued to dominate meets and figures to be a shoo-in to capture the league crown for a second straight year when the conference championships are run May 22. The squad has been so impressive that it earned a No. 6 ranking in the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Division 3 poll two weeks ago.
“It’s kind of hard to think about (being ranked) because a couple years ago we weren’t even winning our conference let alone being ranked at the state level,” said junior Johnny Ancel, one of the team’s three captains, along with classmates Tommy Palmer and Wesley Fulk.
Members of the team or coaching staff point to when Rick Ancel took over as head coach before last year as the pivotal moment when the Ironmen’s outlook, preparation and performance all changed. Ancel, who ran collegiately at Saginaw Valley State, deflects the credit back to his team and its willingness to do what it takes to find success.
“I do remember during the year that the workouts started changing,” said Rick Ancel. “They started going from trying to complete a workout because they had to run that much to trying to improve. Instead of just getting through it, they were doing the workout to get better.”
The fruits of their labor paid off in the form of the league crown, a fifth-place finish in the Regional — which came in their first year competing in Division 3 — MHSAA Finals qualifiers in three events and a school record in the 1,600-meter relay.
“At the end of last year I was feeling pretty good,” said Fulk. “We were only losing two of our (top) people, so the majority of our team was still going to be here. I knew we were going to be better than last season.”
The Ironmen haven’t disappointed. In an indoor meet at Central Michigan University in mid-March, the Ironmen kicked off their season by finishing second among Division 3 and 4 teams, easily surpassing their 11th-place finish a year ago. They followed that by winning their first five regular-season meets outside. Only a second-place finish at the Blue Devil Classic in Gaylord — where Mancelona tested itself against Division 1 and 2 teams — broke up the streak of regular-season first-place finishes that started early last season.
“This year we added some big meets,” said Rick Ancel. “We really tried to ramp up our competition this year.”
Ancel’s veteran squad has welcomed the tougher competition. It’s a core of athletes who individually have the versatility to fill in at a number of different events and compete at a high level. The three captains, for instance, can run any event from the 100-meter dash up to the 800-meter run.
“We can try more people in different spots,” said Fulk.
It comes down to doing whatever the team needs at a particular meet. Even though track & field is in many ways an individual sport, the Ironmen see it from a team standpoint and embrace that perspective.
“We always start every meet and end every meet together as a team,” said Palmer. “You can’t do it alone, obviously. You can’t win a meet with just us three who are here or just one of us.”
Two years ago the Mancelona team had only 11 members. Depth is not an issue any longer, however, as the Ironmen have bolstered their roster and now have nearly every event covered. Sophomore Ryan Rebh is ranked among the best hurdlers in the state in Division 3. Sophomore Jayden Alfred is the reigning Regional champion in the high jump and long jump and has emerged as the team’s top sprinter this season. Sophomore distance runner Tyler McClure is a Finals qualifier in the 3,200-meter run. Junior Michael Wagner is one of the better discus throwers in the Ski Valley Conference. James Dunne, Ben Palmer, Sam Squires and Austin Anderson have been key point scorers as well.
Mancelona also has four top-notch relays — all four should be favored to win conference crowns — highlighted by the 1,600 team. Ancel, Tommy Palmer and Fulk all return for that squad and have their sights set on breaking the school record for a second straight year.
“We’re just trying to find the right day where we all run fast at the same time,” said Johnny Ancel. “We could probably break it again right now. We just haven’t found the day.”
Records aside, the Ironmen seem to have the lineup that could challenge for a Regional title. Mancelona’s last Regional championship came in 2012, but that was in Division 4. Running in Division 3 is a bit more difficult, the Ironmen say, but they are up for the challenge.
“Harbor Springs was (in Gaylord), and they’re in our division. They’re really good. We’ll meet them again at Regionals,” said Rick Ancel. “That will be a tough day for us, but I think we’ve got a shot at winning that.”
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Mancelona’s Ryan Rebh leads the charge through the 110-meter hurdles during a recent meet. (Middle) Jayden Alfred launches during the long jump. (Photos by Chris Dobrowolski.)