BROOKLYN – The seeds that bore fruit Saturday for Chelsea junior Connell Alford were planted five years ago.
After making his first trip to watch the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway as a sixth grader, Alford began setting lofty goals for himself.
“In 2017, Chelsea won the team title,” Alford said. “That was my first state meet. Then I saw one of our runners get fifth. I thought, ‘You know what, I want to be a state champion one day.’ Since then, it’s always been a goal.”
Alford isn’t the only runner to dream of becoming a state champion, but he was able to make that dream a reality.
He dominated the field in the Lower Peninsula Division 2 meet, posting a time of 15:12.61 to outpace runner-up Carter McCalister of Monroe Jefferson by 24.93 seconds.
Running solo up front meant having to bear the full brunt of a strong wind. But Alford didn’t want to leave anything to chance after getting outkicked for fourth place last year by Dearborn Divine Child’s Michael Hegarty. Hegarty was fourth this year.
“I feel like there’s always a wind like that in the last 100 meters, like last year when I got fourth and got outkicked,” Alford said. “My game plan this year was don’t be in the final straight with anyone so I can’t be outkicked.”
Alford was the prohibitive favorite in Division 2 all season after winning eight of nine meets on his way to MIS and breaking 15 minutes twice. He didn’t see it that way.
“I still can’t totally believe it happened,” he said. “I knew with my performances there would be a shot, but after Regionals it was all open. It could have been anyone. We had super-fast Regionals. I knew there were crazy-fast people in the Regionals. It was still up for grabs in my mind.”
For the second-straight year, a runner from the Southeastern Conference White won the Division 2 title. Alford was preceded atop the podium by Pinckney’s Caleb Jarema, who now runs for the University of Michigan.
“I think last year I had Caleb Jarema in almost every race I ran,” Alford said. “That really helped. I learned stuff he did. I knew I could go off of what he did. He was such a strong runner. I used him as a model of, ‘Hey, I’m going to train so I can do that, too.’”
The SEC White flexed its collective muscles again in Division 2, with three of the top four teams hailing from that six-school division.
East Grand Rapids won the meet with 132 points, but the next three teams were from the SEC White. Chelsea was only five points out of first, Pinckney was 11 back and Adrian was 32 back.
While Chelsea, Pinckney and Adrian had runners in the top 10, East Grand Rapids won with the strength of its pack.
The Pioneers didn’t have a finisher until junior Ryan Brinker crossed in 28th place in 16:19.01, but he soon had company. Junior Alex Thole was 33rd (16:28.79), senior Elijah Robinson was 36th (16:30.52), freshman Jonah Workman was 45th (16:38.09) and junior Davis Christy was 46th (16:40.83).
The team title was the first in boys cross country for the Pioneers.
PHOTOS (Top) Chelsea’s Connell Alford travels the final paces of his LPD2 championship run Saturday. (Middle) East Grand Rapids’ Davis Christy (458) is among leaders of a pack heading toward the finish. (Click for more from Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)
BROOKLYN — On the same day Rockford’s Dathan Ritzenhein set a course record at Michigan International Speedway that has never been approached, Kurtis Marlowe of Richland Gull Lake had a performance that was overshadowed.
But Marlowe’s winning time of 15:02.5 in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals in 2000 also stood the test of time.
Freeland junior TJ Hansen eclipsed the Division 2 record with his winning time of 14:52.8. Runner-up Solomon Kwartowitz of Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood also nearly broke the previous record, finishing in 15:03.3.
Even though it was apparent from earlier races Saturday that perfect conditions made fast times possible, Hansen didn’t set out to break Marlowe’s record.
“No, my goal was to go out and win,” he said. “Play strategy from the front, let others do the work, then just push it. Whatever time I got, I was gonna get. I knew it was going to take a time like that to win it today.
“I usually run close to a (personal record) every year at this meet. It’s one of my favorite courses. It’s definitely unique here at the speedway, so I really like the course, I really like to run it.”
Hansen went through the mile mark tied for 11th in 4:54.3, but you could’ve thrown a blanket over the top 12 runners at that point.
It was a three-man race between Hansen, Kwartowitz and 2022 champion Connell Alford of Chelsea when they reached the two-mile mark in 9:46.
Hansen made sure there would be no drama coming down the stretch.
“I was just trying to stay calm, let them do the work, just sit back,” he said. “When I needed to go, I was gonna go. My goal was to stay relaxed.”
Kwartowitz had no complaints with his race.
“It felt really smooth,” he said. “It was great. I didn’t get a chance to race these guys a bunch this year. I did at Spartan (Invitational, in September). I was really hoping to end it with a victory.”
The boys Division 2 team championship was a toss-up between four teams for the second year in a row, with Ada Forest Hills Eastern coming out on top with 134 points. Pinckney was second with 156, East Grand Rapids third with 175 and Allendale fourth with 176.
Last year, 32 points separated the top four teams.
Junior Henry Dixon led Forest Hills Eastern, placing sixth in 15:16.0. Senior Liam Hinman was 29th, senior Brendan Hoving was 30th, senior Cooper Jacobsen was 38th and junior Tyler Endres was 82nd.
It was the first MHSAA championship for Forest Hills Eastern, which had a program-best finish of fourth in 2007.
PHOTOS (Top) Freeland's TJ Hansen approaches the finish of his record run Saturday at MIS. (Middle) Henry Dixon sets the pace for Forest Hills Eastern's first team championship. (Photos by Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)