By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
SAUGATUCK – It’s tough enough for a team to defend an MHSAA Finals championship.
It might be even more difficult to do it in an unfamiliar division.
The Saugatuck boys cross country team will be presented with that challenge after a slight change in enrollment bumped the Indians up to Division 3 this fall.
The Indians had solidified themselves as a state powerhouse in Division 4 the past three years, with two MHSAA Lower Peninsula championships and a Finals runner-up finish.
However, Saugatuck’s enrollment increased, and this season the team will compete in Division 3, beginning with its Regional on Oct. 29 at Redbud MX in Buchanan.
“My guys were actually excited about it, and they were pumped when they heard,” Indians coach Rick Bauer said. “Not that they thought they were going to win (again), but they knew they would get a chance to run faster and against better competition and that’s really what they wanted.”
Saugatuck breezed to its second MHSAA title in three seasons last year at Michigan International Speedway, putting five runners in the top 15.
Senior Zachary Pettinga, who placed runner-up as an individual last year, said the team is thrilled to see how it stacks up against a new crop of competitors.
“I was very excited because I knew it was a new challenge for the team,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of competition for us last year with the guys in Division 4, and so this is an exciting change. Our team likes challenges, and we wanted to move up.”
The Indians didn’t graduate anyone from last year, returning their entire top seven. They would’ve been the heavy favorite to repeat this season in Division 4, but now have their sights set on reigning Division 3 champion Lansing Catholic and perennial power Benzonia Benzie Central.
“Coming into this season, I didn’t look at it as we were defending state champs because we’re in a new division,” Bauer said. “It’s really Lansing Catholic, which is the team to beat. That’s been our thing. Lansing Catholic is the champs, and if we want to win we have to beat them and a host of other really good teams. That has been our main focus since we found out we were going up.”
Saugatuck certainly has the talent and depth to challenge for the top spot in Division 3.
It boasts a bevy of experience with 13 seniors. Sophomore Corey Gorgas also is back, and has vastly improved his times from a year ago.
Other key returnees include seniors Nick Butch, Orlando Carrion, Eldon Garvelink, Jacob VanderRoest, Evan Hotary, Sam Putzke and junior Keegan Seifert.
“It’s a whole different level for us, but we’ve put in the work and hopefully we’ll be ready for it,” Gorgas said. “There are so many different teams and individuals so the competition is a lot better. I was hoping for this because I wanted the extra competition. We’re looking forward to the state finals and having them all at the same meet.”
The Indians got a taste of Division 3 when they competed in the recent Portage Invitational.
Bauer said there are differences between Division 3 and Division 4, and his team was forced to adapt to running conditions to which they were unaccustomed.
Still, Saugatuck won the Division 3 race at Portage with 81 points, 59 fewer than runner-up Lansing Catholic. Gorgas was third (15:50) individually, with Pettinga seventh (16:11) and Butch 13th (16:38).
“Division 3 is a different world, and the kids had to adjust accordingly at Portage,” he said. “They’ve been able to run pretty clear in Division 4 and there isn’t a lot of bumping and pushing. You go up to Division 3 and there’s a lot more physical racing going on, so that’s been the biggest difference.
“There are also many more guys who can run the same kind of time that we are running.”
The Indians dominated its most recent race, the Southwestern Athletic Conference meet on Oct. 11, placing the top four and 10 of the events top 12 runners.
Obviously all can’t be in the starting lineup as the team moves deeper into the postseason. But Bauer said the unselfishness of his squad has been impressive to witness.
“We go pretty deep, and the thing about our team that is great is no one gets mad about it,” he said. “They all have the same goal in mind, and all of them want to be one of those seven, but also want the best seven out there. That’s refreshing to have kids who can think about the big picture and what’s best for the team.”
The Indians have experienced success this season in preparation for the Nov. 5 Finals. Despite a few injuries, they’ve set themselves up to make their mark in a new setting.
“We’ve been able to stay healthy for the most part,” Bauer said. “We’ve won some meets where I thought we ran terrible, and we’ve had other meets where I thought we’ve run really well. We’re trending in the right direction.”
Added Pettinga: “We’ve competed well, but I still think we can do better. We’re working hard every day, and we still have that main goal. We want a state championship ring with Division 3 on it, and we want to maintain the success we’ve built up here."
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Saugatuck's Corey Gorgas (right) stays just ahead of Whitmore Lake's Trey Cucuro to finish third at the Portage Invitational on Oct. 8. (Middle) Nick Butch (918), Orlando Carrion (919) and Keegan Seifert (behind) run in a pack on the way to finishing 13th, 14th and 15th, respectively, at last season's LP Division 4 Final. (Below) Saugatuck's Zach Pettinga runs toward a seventh-place finish at Portage; he was the LPD4 runner-up a year ago. (Photos by John Brabbs & Carter Sherline/RunMichigan.com.)