It’s All About the Culture! St. Michael Track Ladies Send Largest-Ever Crew to State!

PETOSKEY – June 21, 2024 – A stiff wind blew across Petoskey’s lonely, wind-swept Curtis Field, a site that once heard the clamor and roar of boisterous crowds at Friday night football games when, it seemed, the entire town came out to cheer on their high school team. The old grandstand by the railroad tracks, demolished and removed a few years ago, is now a faded memory, with just a collection of stray boxcars left standing witness.

But on this Wednesday afternoon in late-May, a small group of student-athletes representing St. Michael High School were planting seeds of new memories. Less than 72 hours separated the Guardian ‘State qualifiers’ from their biggest races of the year – at the MHSAA Track & Field (T&F) State Finals in Hudsonville, just west of Grand Rapids.

Although Head Coach Larry Rudnicki was overseeing one last middle school meet fifty miles away in Kalkaska on this day – like clockwork, the team began its warm-up as if their mentor was right there with them.

“(Coach Rudnicki) has given us the confidence,” reported sophomore Charlotte Yanchulis. “He has given us a lot of opportunities and a lot of work. I feel like without him pushing us and (his belief that) ‘you can do this,’ we might not have been able to do what we’ve done.”

What the Lady Guardians did this season was qualify their largest-ever crew for the Division-4 State Finals.

“Each of us has gotten faster and we’ve gotten to know each other better,” said sophomore Ella Nolan. “I love the team. We have such a good team culture.”

“It’s all about the culture,” Coach Rudnicki states plainly. “All of our success in Cross Country (XC) and Track, I tie to the quality of our team culture.”

“What is our team culture?” Rudnicki continued, “We’re here for the glory of God, not ourselves.  We’re called to give of ourselves and build the team. We’re to train and persevere with our team to pursue common goals. We’re not here for self-referential drama.  I believe this prepares these young men and women for the Christian life – learning to give, to sacrifice, to suffer… for something larger.”

Coach Rudnicki, who has led the Guardians for the past six years in both XC and T&F, has coached teenage distance runners for 25 years. He landed at St. Michael after a successful stint at Palmer Ridge High School (Colorado), where he helped guide five teams to Division 4A (the equivalent of Michigan Division-2) State Championships, and four others to ‘Runner-up’ finishes, over seven years.

In his time at St. Michael, the Guys XC team has placed among the Division-4 top ten for the last five seasons, with three of those teams landing in the top five.

The Ladies XC team, meanwhile, has qualified for ‘State’ in each of its three years of existence, but have yet to crack the top 20. His Boys T&F teams are perennial ‘D-4’ leaders in the 4×800 meter relay, winning the State title in 2021, while his distance runners have notched several individual All-State performances as well.

While two St. Michael gents were still training on that late-May day at Curtis – sophomore Cody Bradley for the 3200 and junior Russell Vandermus for the 800 – it’s the record number of girls who qualified that Coach Rudnicki loves to brag about this season. There is wide concurrence that the team culture is central and essential to their success.

“There’s friendly rivalry among the girls, especially the sprinters which, I think, has really helped,” commented senior Sydney Feagan. “It’s a great team.  Even some girls who weren’t super enthusiastic about it last year, really embraced it this year.  Everyone is really driven and want to push towards their goals at State.”

“We support each other more and we’re closer now than we have been,” Yanchulis added. “V (freshman Veronica Paga) and I have the same best events. We are less than a second apart (in the 200 & 400 meters), so we’re running next to each other all the time. We really build off of each other.”

At the team’s Regional, it was hard to tell who beat whom in the 400 meters, but the clock & camera reported Paga edging out Yanchulis (64.33 to 64.36) for second place. The good news: despite only the ‘top two’ receiving automatic bids to State, Yanchulis also made the cut by hitting the ‘Additional Qualifier’ standard.

“Without running next to ‘V’ to push me through, I probably wouldn’t have made it to State,” Yanchulis said.

Leading the pack for the Guardians all season has been junior distance ace Jane Manthei, a 6-time State qualifier on the track, an All-State XC runner and two-miler, with ambitions of winning a state title this year in the 3200 meters. (Manthei finished third. See D-4 State results at

From Manthei’s perspective, the season has gone very well. “It’s been really cool watching the team improve,” she said. “We all push each other, and everyone has really bought into the idea of training hard, working together, and being really great teammates.”

St. Michael senior Catherine Hayes agrees. “It’s been really awesome to watch the improvement,” said Hayes. “Over the course of the year, the girls who had breakthrough seasons would have these great races and everyone was super supportive of them. Their success gave us all more energy.”

In addition to Manthei in the 1600 & 3200, and Paga & Yanchulis in the 400, the Guardians qualified two entries in the sprint relays – the 4×200 and the 4×400. The Regional Champion 4×400 relay consisted of Manthei, Paga, Yanchulis, and sophomore Marley Kern – who, perhaps more than anyone, exemplified the new ‘bought in’ attitude of the entire team. The 4×200 relay was qualified by Paga, Yanchulis, Nolan, and junior Hannah Ledy.

“The girls are always encouraging,” Kern remarked. “Especially when you need it – like at the end of a ‘400’ when you’re dying. They’re always cheering you on.”

Ledy echoed these sentiments about great teammates and hard work. “Coach has a really good method as far as passion, drive, and discipline,” she said. “He gives us those late off-days, and keeps it easy when needed, but pushes us on other days when we do a lot of workouts with him. He just knows how to play off of when we might be sore, and we’re always staying positive, no matter how we do at meets.”

“He keeps us all in line,” Kern added, “even if we don’t like it sometimes.”

“Coach has taken a big leap out of his own comfort zone,” observed Feagan, a State qualifier in T&F and XC. “He’s a guys’ coach and a distance coach. He’s never really coached sprinting, so for him to coach this team of (mostly) sprinter girls is really awesome.”

“Look, I’m not really a ladies’ coach,” Rudnicki confessed. “I’ve tried to adapt and some of the success has stemmed from just getting older.  I got to know the girls better in Colorado because I couldn’t keep up with the guys anymore, but I could still run with the top ladies. That helped me, I think, as their coach.”

Whether working with the ladies or the gents, Coach Rudnicki believes in several ‘must-have’ elements. “It’s coaching.  It’s a program.  It’s tradition.  It’s culture,” he added. “I’m not there as a cultural zealot every day.  I don’t have to be.  I set fence posts early and then expect that what I want to see is happening within them.”

“We have to hold each other accountable, but that presumes a foundation of brotherly and sisterly love and trust. We’re called to be joyful, optimistic, and encouraging – while also embracing the Cross – eager, if we have it in us, to do that ‘one more rep’ for our team.”

“It’s easy to say all of this – but much harder to personally execute when exhausted by school, or life – and it’s 37 degrees, windy, and pouring rain. ‘The Track’ puts you to the test. You must buy-in and you can’t be wishy-washy about it. This is training for Christian life.”

According to the girls, the difference in this year’s team has been complete ‘buy-in.’

“The girls on the team are amazing.  This is where you make the best friends because you work really hard,” Paga concurred. “It’s so much fun to build that relationship through hard work.”

“There are non-negotiables when you step on the track:  you’re here for your team, you’re here for your Lord, and you’re not here for your personal gain,” Hayes said. “This year, everyone came in with that mindset. They already had an understanding of what a commitment looks like.”

Rudnicki agrees. “When team members aren’t assimilating, I gently direct them to do so. And as they buy-in, the positive culture is contagious. They all then comprise a sort of ‘perpetual motion machine’ for the program.”

That ‘perpetual motion machine’ achieved new heights and made lasting memories this past season. Rudnicki’s hope going into the State Finals was both honest and realistic. It was also spot-on accurate.

“Could Jane win the 3200? Yes,” he said two days before the meet. “Would I bet on it? Maybe not. ‘Top 3?’ Yes, I think she can be top three. ‘D-4 girls’ is loaded.”

“On the Guys’ side, Could Cody be ‘top 3?’ Yeah,” he continued. “Could Russell make the podium? Yeah – and they’ll both need to set new program records to do it.”

At State, as he predicted, both Jane and Cody finished in 3rd place in the 3200, while Russell made the podium, capturing 8th place in the 800. Cody broke his own program record in the 3200 at 9:42.7. Russell cracked the 2-minute barrier, and set a new program record in the 800, at 1:59.3.

Spot-on accurate. His assessment for the rest of the St. Michael ladies was also on the money.

“This is definitely the ‘experience year’ for the ladies (Jane excepted),” he explained. “We’re in the slowest heat for pretty much everything. We aren’t going to score points.”

Nor did they. They competed, and will take that experience into next season – and on into life.

“My hope for the program is that they all come back (except seniors Sydney & Catherine),” Rudnicki said. “I always aim for State and, hopefully, we’ll compete and ascend the podium more frequently next spring and score points in multiple events. I’m so proud of these young ladies – and they’re just getting started. It’s ‘Hey ladies, you can do this! You can be here next year and up on the podium!’ I play the long game and that’s my hope.”

Rudnicki points out that this will require continued work. “Certain things have to happen,” he said. “I’d love to see them running XC. Championships are won in the off-season.”

Anyone who joins St. Michael T&F next year should plan to buy-in to an increasingly established team culture.

“Everyone is welcome on our teams and can help us move our program forward by doing just two things: working hard and supporting their teammates,” Rudnicki concluded. “If you can’t put your teammates ahead of yourself, then I don’t really care how fast you are. Our positive, team-oriented culture isn’t going to change.”

All that seems likely to change is a continued march up ‘D-4’ for the Guardians, who aspire to run for each other, and for the glory of God. It’s a team whose culture defines its success, and that’s proven daily – often through stiff crosswinds sweeping over the Petoskey’s oft-forgotten Curtis Field, where young men and women continue to receive formation through athletics each spring, and where life-long memories continue to be made.

Story & Interviews by Kevin Weed – Headmaster, St. Michael High School.

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