JACKSON – Four years ago, the Grass Lake boys and girls track programs were simply hoping to fill out a lineup, score some points at conference meets and maybe even take home an invitational title or two.
Fast-forward to the 2021 season and the same athletes and coaches that powered through the growing pains of a fledgling small-school track program were reaping the benefits of their hard work, as the Warrior boys and girls track teams stood atop the awards podium at Jenison High School as Division 3 state champions last Saturday.
The Grass Lake boys track and field team dominated the Division 3 field with 68 points to take top team honors, thanks in large part to senior Brennen Bargesser, who claimed individual state titles in the 100 dash (11.00 seconds), 200 dash (22.60) and the 400 dash (49.10) and anchored the 400-meter relay team with teammates Andrew Stockton, Josh Sherwood and Trenton Holden in the 400-meter relay that took top honors with a time of 44.43 seconds.
The Grass Lake girls scored 41 points to tie with Pewamo-Westphalia for top team honors thanks to junior Lexus Bargesser, who won individual state titles in the 100-meter dash (12.12 seconds), 200-meter dash (25.3), and set a new Division 3 state record while winning the 400-meter dash with a time of 55.54 seconds.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Grass Lake boys coach Anthony Cole. “We never really talked about winning a state championship earlier in the year. Our initial goal was to win the conference, but as the season went on, we started looking at things a little bit and realized we had a legit shot at winning our regional.
“After we won the regional, I think everyone started to realize that we could really do something special at the state meet but it was going to take everyone’s best performance of the season to make that possible. We didn’t even really talk about it until the week of the state meet because I didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on them but we all kind of came together and started to believe in ourselves and then they all went out there and went crazy last weekend and got the job done.”
The Warriors were lifted by career performances from several program veterans such as senior Josh Sherwood, who finished fifth in the 100 dash (11.36) and fifth in the 200 dash (23.66), senior Connor Viegelahn, who finished tied for runner-up honors in the pole vault by clearing 12-9, junior Jack Easterday, who finished fifth in the 110-meter hurdles (15.86) and sixth in the 300 hurdles (42.40) and senior Trenton Holden, who finished fourth in the discus with a throw of 139-2.
“I kind of knew that it was going to be our day earlier than I thought I would,” said Cole. “We started to get some unexpected points from guys like Conner Viegelahn in the pole vault, Trenton Holden in the discus, Josh Sherwood qualifying for the finals in the 100 and 200 dashes and Jack Easterday in the hurdles. It was just one of those days that you dream of as a coach.
“I refused to look at the scores until the (400-meter relay). After I looked at the standings, I started to think that we might have it wrapped up. Then, Brennen and Josh ran the 200 and that was kind of the icing on the cake. After that, we knew it was pretty much done and over with.”
The seven combined state championships between the Bargesser family alone were enough to make the day an unforgettable one, but knowing the work they’ve put in behind the scenes made Cole appreciate the record-breaking performances even more.
“Those two are just different,” he said of the Bargessers. “They are a different breed of humans. This past weekend was just a testament to how hard they’ve worked this past year and they are a perfect example of what happens when natural talent meets hard work.
“It’s been really cool to see how those two have grown these past few years. Brennen was pretty quick when he was a freshman, but seeing the transformation he’s made since then is insane. The same thing with Lex. She kind of surprised herself with how well she ran as a freshman and she ended up winning two state titles.
“Now, they’ve both probably added 10-15 pounds of muscle to their frames, and they are just explosive athletes whether it’s on the track of the basketball court.”
Cole was understandably emotional when the events concluded last weekend, as he saw so many senior dual-sport athletes posing with the first Grass Lake boys track state championship trophy since 1970.
“There were a lot of emotions, but really, I was just so happy for these kids,” he said. “They’ve worked so hard and they’ve earned everything and I could not be prouder or happier for them. Even the kids who didn’t quite qualify for the state meet were just as much a part of this as the guys that were there. It’s a special group to be involved with and I don’t know if it’s really even sunk in yet that we are state champions. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions.
“I had to wear sunglasses all day because I’m an emotional guy and I didn’t want anyone to see any tears in my eyes. You see people like Kailee Sandoval go out there and earn All-State honors in the 800 run in her last race in a Grass Lake jersey or Trenton Holden in the discus after the career he’s had at our school and it’s just been a privilege to coach those kids for the past four years. These kids are just special and we ask a lot of them between being multi-sport athletes and being really good at every sport they compete in.”
The Grass Lake girls track team only brought four athletes to the state meet last weekend but that proved to be all that was needed to capture the first state championship since 1978. The accomplishment was too much for even their own coach to comprehend when the final standings were announced.
“I was a little incredulous to be honest because there’s no way a team of four girls should ever expect to come away with a team state championship, but these girls put together their best performances of the season and we found a way to score 41 points,” said Grass Lake head coach Jennifer Taylor. “It was pretty incredible and it’s something I know none of us will ever forget.
“Personally, I wasn’t really expecting to come away with a win, but I thought we would be in the running and I knew these girls were going to put up a good fight. I had crunched the numbers over and over again and Hart was coming in with a huge team score thanks to their distance girls and Pewamo-Westphalia had a lot of girls in events that were projected to be point winners, so it looked like we were likely headed for a third-place finish or a runner-up finish at best. I prepped my girls for the possibility of winning it all because I wanted to motivate them and have them thinking big picture, but it was a pleasant surprise to see how well everyone performed.”
Taylor knew Lexus Bargesser had a chance for a special day last weekend but to reach the pinnacle of the Division 3 field in three loaded events was something that shouldn’t go understated.
“There were some real contenders in all of her events and she’s been one of the top runners in the state, regardless of division, so she’s had to take on everyone’s best shot every time she’s raced,” she said. “She thrives on that competition though, because that’s the kind of athlete that she is. She brings out her best when it matters most and she did that again this past weekend.
“I knew when she popped off that 55 second time in the 400 at regionals that she was most likely going to come away with that state title in that event if she ran to her averages but that’s not her style. She took her performance to the next level and excelled in all four of her events.”
Grass Lake senior Kailee Sandoval capped off her impressive high school running career by finishing sixth in the 800-meter run with a time of 2:20.25 and helping the 1,600-meter relay team finish runner-up in what proved to be the state-title clinching moment for the girls team.
“She’s been a great example for our entire program,” said Taylor. “She’s such a hard worker and such a fierce competitor. I knew when she stepped on that track in the 800 that she was going to fight every step of the way. We had hoped that she’d finish in the top three but also knew that was going to be a challenge for her given the field in that event at the state meet.
“I knew that I could count on her to fight in that race because I knew that we weren’t going to win that meet on just Lexi. We were going to need everybody’s best performance, especially given the fact that we only had four girls there, and knowing Kailee’s leadership, in her senior year, she wasn’t going to let her teammates down.”
Now that they’ve gained the respect and attention of the entire Michigan high school track community, the Warriors are hoping to bring in some more athletes in 2022, as they attempt to maintain a high level of success in the future.
“We’re hoping we can use it as a recruiting tool in the future,” said Cole of his team’s state title. “We definitely want to start bringing in more kids because sometimes it’s difficult to put a full lineup together as a Division 3 program. Honestly, I don’t care if you’re fast or strong, I just want anyone interested in track to join and be a part of this.”
“We only had 11 or 12 girls all season and that’s really tough,” said Taylor. “It’s difficult to fill events when you’re asking girls to run in four events even when they might not be prepared for it. It’s a tough job to motivate someone to commit to that kind of a grind, but we’ve been blessed with very unselfish and very hard-working kids.
“I’m hoping to bring in a few more girls next year and that should help us have more depth and hopefully, score more points at some of these invitationals during the regular season. We know Lex is going to be one of the top sprinters in the state next year but we can’t rely on her to score 40 points again. I think more girls will see what we’re building at Grass Lake and want to be involved.”
Cole and Taylor will continue to mix their vastly different personality into a formula that is obviously working to create a championship pedigree for years to come at Grass Lake.
“It’s a great partnership,” said Taylor. “We both came into the program at the same time and this is our 12th year together. He definitely is the calming force when things get stressful for me but then again, this past Saturday, it was my turn to step up and try to calm him down a little bit.
“We definitely feed off of the level of excitement and I think we both balanced each other out. He’s more of the outgoing motivational speaker, who can rile guys up before a meet like he does with the football team. I’m more of a soft-spoken coach who tries to calm people down before the race and get them to focus on sticking up the gameplan and doing their job.
“They are both needed when it comes to coaching a track program and I think we do a pretty good job of preparing these young athletes. It was a special moment to share the podium with the boys team last weekend and it wasn’t something we ever expected before the season started.”
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