It was the first boys’ Track and Field State Championship in 2008 that really made Mike Jurasek, ‘81 cry.
Now, unfortunately, remembering the successes of the Albion Wildcats’ cross country and track and field program can only assuage to Jurasek the fact that the high school in which he taught and coached for twenty-nine years is no more.
This coming May will mark the three year anniversary of the decision by Albion school officials to close the district’s only high school. Although the years have gone by, the closing of the doors leaves a permanent scar on the Albion community. It does not, however, diminish the pride and connection that the Wildcat athletic program provided to the small, mid-Michigan town.
Jurasek, a Concord native who spent his collegiate years between Jackson College and Albion College, originally was employed at St. John’s, the local Catholic school in Albion during that time. While there, he was able to make acquaintance with Michael Bitar, the superintendent of Albion Public Schools.
“[Bitar] invited me in for an interview,” explains Jurasek. “I really didn’t have to apply; I kind of walked into the job.”
What would follow is nothing short of a legendary coaching career for Jurasek. Between the boys and girls programs, five state championships, three runner-up finishes, ten top-five finishes and twenty-two regional titles, the Wildcats track and field program was highly decorated, all under the head tutelage of Jurasek.
During his time as a teacher and coach, there were many specific components that contributed to the Wildcats’ success.
“Although we were a school of nine hundred kids, not every student went out for sports, which is something that is seen in any school,” says Jurasek. “One of the big components of the program was Dan Davis. He moved here from Detroit and really brought a lot of stability to the coaching aspect of the team. He became the primary sprinting coach.”
When asked if there were any Albion High School cross country and track athletes who went on to compete in college, Jurasek responded with one word, “bunches.”
“That’s the nice thing about the sport, it gives the kids an opportunity to go to college. If we could teach them to use their athletic abilities to get a college education, then it’s pretty cool.”
Then came the unfortunate day in 2013. As the Albion High School enrollment rate was on a sharp decline, the district voted unanimously to cease the school’s existence.
Jurasek spoke morosely of this time, “As much as I love working for the Concord community and schools, that first year out of Albion was depressing for me. This is really the first time I’ve opened up about it outside of close friends.”
“Being at Albion was truly a blessing. Some people will look at districts like Albion and what the staff dealt with and say, ‘I don’t want to deal with those kinds of problems.’ But I really embraced them. I wanted to reach out to students and help uncover their abilities.”
“People can say what they want about the place of athletics in schools, but I truly believe that it is a rallying point.” Jurasek explains. “It’s just sad that none of it is there anymore.”
When asked about his favorite moment as a Wildcat, Jurasek beamed with pride. “I think some of the best involved my kids, Lesley and Chris, who were both All-State runners for the school. [It was] not just the successes, but the hard work that them and their teams put in as a whole.”
Jurasek also expanded his work with the cross country team.
“When I took over the [cross country] program, it was pretty abysmal,” said Jurasek. “So taking the team to their first state championship meet and finishing in the top 5 was special.”
As Jurasek discussed the legacy of the Albion Wildcats as a whole, he was quick to remember the people who inhabit the town. “People are already feeling nostalgic,” he explains. “Whenever people see me in town, they always love to talk about the days of the Albion Wildcats. It’s never going to come back, and that, to me, is the saddest thing.”
“Whenever I think about the closing, I think back to the community and the fact that they lost a school.”
Photo by Andrew Wittland