By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — Jesse Hersha is the best small-school runner in Michigan, but he's got big-time talent.
Everybody else in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 cross country meet Saturday was running for second place, as exemplified by Santana Scott's reaction when he finished as runner-up to Hersha at Michigan International Speedway.
Spotting Evart teammate Josh Woods in the finish area, Scott thrust his arms in the air and ran in his direction.
"Josh! I got second!" a delirious Scott screamed.
Hersha ran away with his third straight individual title, posting a time of 15:23.0 to narrowly miss the LP Division 4 record and win by 31.7 seconds over Scott.
Scott shattered his personal best with a time of 15:54.7.
Asked if the field was racing for second place, Scott said: "That's what I was feeling like. I didn't think I'd be able to catch him."
Hersha became only the third boy to win three championships since team and individual qualifiers began running in the same race in 1996, the first year for the LP Finals at MIS. Benzie Central's Jake Flynn won Class C from 1997-99 and Maverick Darling of Ovid-Elsie won Division 3 from 2005-07.
Four others who ran when there were separate team and individual races had the fastest time at the MHSAA Finals three times.
"When I won it my sophomore year, the first thing I thought was, 'All right, I've got to go through and do it,'" Hersha said. "It really didn't feel real until now that I'm a three-time state champion."
Hersha would be a threat to win or place high in any division in the state.
He ran his personal best of 15:07 on Sept. 12 at the Spartan Invitational, taking second to Royal Oak's Ben Hill in an elite field stacked with some of the best Division 1 runners in Michigan. He finished ahead of Waterford Mott's Ryan Robinson, who was 21st in last year's Foot Locker national meet.
"It's nice to be able to look at the state meet as low-pressure, because I feel I can win every time," said Hersha, whose next race will be the Foot Locker Midwest Regionals on Nov. 29 in Kenosha, Wis. "Obviously, if something goes wrong, I won't win. I'd honestly rather race the bigger guys, even if I don't win the race."
The only thing that didn't complete Hersha's final season at Concord was that the team didn't win its third championship in his four-year career, taking fourth with 123 points.
Fourth-ranked Beal City pulled the upset, edging top-ranked Saugatuck by four points with 105.
Senior Nick Pung was third in 16:19.3 and junior Ethan Schafer seventh in 16:33.9 to lead Beal City, which was in the MHSAA Final for only the third time. Last year's seventh-place finish was the team's best showing in a Final before Saturday.
PHOTOS: (Top) Concord's Jesse Hersha kicks down the stretch on the way to winning his third LP Division 4 individual championship. (Below) Beal City senior Nick Pung finished third individually to lead the Aggies to their first MHSAA team cross country championship. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
The goal written on Matt Kaczor’s Post-It Note was sub-15 minutes, 15 seconds. That’s what the Freeland cross country coach was hoping for from star runner TJ Hansen during his junior season.
Kaczor tore it up after seeing Hansen run a single race this fall.
“Knowing what he did over the summer and where he was at, seeing what his 1,600 (meter) and his mile got down to, I had a feeling he could get under 15:30 quickly,” Kaczor said. “After the first race, I looked at my assistant and was like, ‘I’ve gotta rip up that Post-It Note. I don’t think our goal is on the level of where he’s at right now.’ At first, it was break 15:15. Once I saw him race at the Under the Lights (on Aug. 18 at St. Johns), I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s going sub 15.’”
Hansen ran 15:39.6 in that first race, and on Sept. 7, in Shepherd, he ran 15:13.9 to meet the goal written on the now-shredded Post-It Note.
This past Saturday, he ran 15:03.7 at the Cadillac Veterans Serving Veterans Invitational. It’s the fastest time recorded in Michigan this year, and a signal that Kaczor might be filling out a new Post-It Note before the season is out.
“The sub-15 barrier, that’s been something on my mind for a while,” Hansen said. “Now that I’m edging closer and closer to that, it’s been exciting. With how heavy my training has been, I wouldn’t expect (to have run this fast this early). Being able to run the times I am really paints the picture for what’s ahead.”
Hansen came into the season already regarded as one of the elite distance runners in the state. He won the 3,200 meters at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Track & Field Finals this past spring. He’s also finished all-state (12th and fifth, respectively) the past two seasons at the LPD2 Cross Country Finals.
His current trajectory, however, would put his name near some of the state’s all-time greats. But that’s not something Hansen is focusing on.
“I really don’t like to compare myself to others,” he said. “I don’t focus on that. I try to be the best TJ Hansen that I can be. The best version of myself.”
Focusing on himself is almost necessary for Hansen, as he’s spending a lot of time during his races running by himself.
At each of the big events Freeland has run in this season, Hansen has finished at least 20 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor. That includes all divisions of the Duane Raffin Festival of Races in Holly.
In Cadillac, where Hansen ran his current best time, he was a full minute ahead of the rest of the field.
“He’s just a special athlete,” Kaczor said. “I can’t see Freeland having someone like this in a while. He’s a generational talent. What’s crazy is, I had the school record when he was a freshman. He and Braden (Honsinger) broke it last year. But TJ has now dropped that school record (set in 1998) by almost a minute.”
Hansen’s achievements have already put him on a path to run at the next level, which is something of a family tradition.
His older sisters Peyton and Kiera are track & field athletes at Wayne State and Eastern Michigan, respectively. Their parents, Tim and Pam, were track & field stars at Central Michigan.
TJ has drawn the attention of coaches around the country, including from Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Colorado.
Having family members who know the process is a help for Hansen, and he said they’ve all been good about allowing him to choose his own path, whatever that may be.
“He’s from a good family that knows how to work and knows how to get things done,” Kaczor said. “He knows that if he puts in the work, he’s going to be at a good spot.”
While Hansen admits it can be a bit overwhelming, he’s using it as motivation to run faster and continue to put his name out there.
Also serving as motivation is 2022 Division 2 champion Connell Alford of Chelsea. Alford is among the elite group of runners in Michigan who have broken the 15-minute mark, doing it twice a year ago.
He currently has the state’s second-best time behind Hansen’s this year, running 15:09.1 at the MSU Invitational on Sept. 15.
“Whenever I see him drop a time, my main goal is to run faster,” Hansen said. “Whenever I see him run a good time, that motivates me to work hard.”
The two won’t see each other until the MHSAA Finals on Nov. 4 at Michigan International Speedway. It’s an opportunity Hansen is excited for, as it’s a chance to race and be pushed toward the lofty goals he’s set for himself. Kaczor is excited about it, too, even if it might mean having to replenish his supply of Post-Its.
“We don’t talk about winning the state title; we talk about making sure that we have great races on those days,” Kaczor said. “We can’t control how somebody else runs. It’s a matter of can we, if the weather is right and the course is in good condition, can we be one of the few guys that has run in the 14s on that course? That’s the goal. Put yourself in some great categories with those upper echelons and the greats of all-time.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Freeland's TJ Hansen leads a pack during last season's LPD2 Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Hansen enjoys a moment of exhilaration after winning the 3,200 this spring at the LPD2 Finals at Ada Forest Hills Eastern. (Top photo by Carter Sherline/Run Michigan; middle photo by Dave McCauley/Run Michigan.)