For a few weeks this summer, not much had changed for 16-year-old Miriam Wilch.
She was at the Albion High School pool, training for the season ahead, much like she had done the previous two summers as a member of the Wildcats swim team.
Only this year, the junior was training to swim for the Marshall Redhawks along side her new teammates, following Albion’s decision to close its high school to help cover a $1-million deficit.
Because of construction at Marshall High School, the Redhawks’ swimming and diving team began offseason practices at Wilch’s former school.
“Everybody on the swim team was real nice, real welcoming,” Wilch said. “It didn’t feel that different, because first we swam at Albion. It seemed kind of like Albion. Just regular teenage girls.”
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Last fall, Albion High School offered varsity girls’ swimming and diving, boys’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ cross country and volleyball. Wilch is one of several former Wildcats to take on the challenge of finding a place on a new team, at a bigger school, against better competition.
“Now it’s a lot harder to even swim in a meet, because at Albion last year we had like 12 people. At Marshall we have (35),” Wilch said. “So at the meets (last year), people swam four events. Here, people swim once or twice.”
That jump in competition likely played a role in two former Albion swimmers leaving Marshall’s team since the start of practices. But Wilch stayed on, and has been contributing for the Redhawks in both the freestyle and breaststroke.
Head coach Dave Karns praised Wilch for sticking it out, despite the big jump up in competition.
“It’s great from a coaching standpoint to see that competition. Miriam is fighting her tail off. I’m really happy,” Karns said. “The biggest adjustment is going from a smaller team to a larger team. Miriam has been great with every aspect. She gets along with the girls and the girls love her.
“Our girls work extremely hard. They know the harder they work now, the bigger the payoff in the end. That goes for all girls, Albion and Marshall.”
Wilch represents one of the last in a line of many former Albion girls’ swimmers and divers. The Wildcats’ program was built under the leadership of Mary Ann Egnatuck, who served as head coach from 1978-2008.
Egnatuck led the Wildcats girls’ team to the 1997 Class B state title as well as runner-up finishes in 1996 and 1998. Egnatuck also worked as the boys coach, where she produced 12 Academic All-State teams, while seeing numerous Albion athletes go on to swim or dive collegiately.
Now an assistant coach at Albion College, Egnatuck stepped away from the program she helped build because she was earning her Masters degree and would have had to miss several key meets. Looking back, she says the decision wasn’t easy.
“It was difficult. I left some very dear, special people in the water. It was something where I wanted to finish this,” Egnatuck said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy or supported. Believe me, I still bleed red and white, a Wildcat for life. It was a very important program for me.”
Although Wilch is the only active swimmer who previously competed for the Wildcats, the future remains bright for Albion’s swimmers, as the junior high program as well as the ‘Aquacats’ swim club remain intact. Those programs, like any feeder program, will be key in building numbers in the sport at the high school level at Marshall.
With the junior high now occupying the former high school, Albion’s middle school students received a big upgrade in their athletic facilities — including the ‘Mary Ann Egnatuck Natatorium,’ where the team’s championship banners remain.
“I coached wonderful kids,” Egnatuck said. “I was fortunate that I was there, had great people who were willing to work hard. I had great support from our administrators, our athletic directors, parents. And now we have some pretty successful people all over the country.”
RUNNING WITH A NEW CROWD
Marshall saw a big boost in numbers to its boys’ cross country program thanks to the addition of Albion athletes.
Six now-Marshall runners bus over from Albion, including a pair who helped the Wildcats place 23rd at the 2012 Division 4 state meet in sophomores Chris Bell and Jontaj Wallace.
“In the beginning we had a lot of questions because we have not had a transition like this before, but everything has gone smoothly,” said Mary Hovarter, the Marshall boys’ cross country coach, who also teaches math at the high school. “At first there were just so many questions because of all the unknowns, but right now things are going smoothly.
“We’re all one big family, and now they are a part of it.”
Hovarter said as soon as Marshall agreed to accept Albion’s students, she knew she would inherit some talent on her squad.
“They fit right in with us,” she said. “We had summer conditioning where the guys would come out, it was like they were already a part of the team. It was great to have the guys come out and join the team.”
Of course, not every former Albion athlete made the decision to attend Marshall.
Longtime Albion cross country and boys’ track coach Mike Jurasek was hired by Concord High School as a teacher and graduation coach. He now serves as a volunteer assistant for Concord’s two-time defending Division 4 state champion boys’ cross country team. He said a handful of his former runners are now at Concord, while a couple more are at Springport High School.
“I have been to three Marshall cross country meets, and the kids seem genuinely happy, I think the transition is going pretty smooth,” Jurasek said. “If all was said and done, I think they would rather be at Albion. But they are adjusting pretty well.”
At Albion, Jurasek was named the 2011 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Coach of the Year. He led the Wildcats to back-to-back Division 4 state titles, also winning Division 3 championships in 2008 and 2009 and finishing runner-up in 2000. With the talent from his cross country and track teams now split up at different schools, he is left to think what could have been if Albion’s runners stuck together.
“Nolan Bright-Mitchell and Zach Hudson are two of the best we’ve ever had, and now they’re at Concord,” said Jurasek. “I’m genuinely happy they are still participating. It’s a great thing to get involved in athletics. It’s an extension of the classroom and you can learn life lessons there… And if I can make it easier for an Albion kid to adjust, that’s what education is all about.”
COMPETITION SPIKES IN VOLLEYBALL
Unlike swimming and cross country — where individual times hold up regardless of competition — volleyball requires a unique skill set to play a team game.
With Albion struggling to put a varsity volleyball team on the court last season, it would have been difficult for a former Wildcat to make the jump from Class D to Class B at Marshall and have an impact.
But Marshall varsity coach John Miller was still surprised when only one former Albion student tried out between all three levels of the Redhawks’ volleyball program.
“I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t expecting help at the varsity level, but a couple kids,” Miller said. “I was hoping to get some athletes and coach them up… It may have been an intimidation factor that can go with the level of play. Albion hasn’t had a good volleyball program in recent years, but they have good athletes. And we can coach athletes to play volleyball. I just wish we could work with more of them.”
Miller, like other Marshall coaches, made the trip to Albion High School last May to gauge interest in playing sports this fall. Close to 20 put their name on the volleyball sign-up sheet, but only one tried out.
“I was hoping they would come in and get a look at what was expected of them and what our program offered,” Miller said. “My girls know better and are welcoming no matter where those kids come from… If they are from Albion, Homer, Lansing or Kentucky, my expectation is for our kids to welcome any kid into our program.”