By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Familiar faces could dominate photo finishes at Saturday’s Upper Peninsula Boys Cross Country Finals at Pictured Rocks Golf Club in Munising.
Two reigning individual champions are back from a year ago, as is the runner-up from the race where the winner has moved on. Reigning Division 2 and 3 team champions Ishpeming and Chassell, respectively, are expected to celebrate again for the fourth straight seasons – but so too is Houghton for the first time since 2011.
Races begin Saturday with the Division 3 girls at 11 a.m. and finish with the Division 1 boys at 1:30 p.m. Check back Saturday evening for coverage of all six Upper Peninsula Finals, and see below for more teams and individuals to watch.
Reigning champion: Negaunee
2016 runner-up: Houghton
2017 top-ranked: 1. Houghton, 2. Marquette, 3. Negaunee.
Negaunee has won the last two UPD1 championships and finished 16 points ahead of Houghton last season. The Miners have three of their top seven back for this weekend, led by reigning champion Colton Yesney; he won last year’s race by 36 seconds. But Houghton brings back five of its top six including third-place Clayton Sayen and fifth-place Seth Helman, who like Yesney have continued to dominate this fall as seniors. Marquette is in the mix with its top three and four of its top seven back from last season’s third-place team, paced by reigning Finals runner-up and current senior Garrett Rudden.
Individuals: While Yesney, Rudden, Sayen and Helman give the field four of last season’s top-five finishers, none of the rest of the top 10 returns – although Negaunee sophomore Eric Anderson and senior Elliott Prusi were 10th and 11th last year, respectively. Marquette senior Luke Rambo, who won the Great Northern Conference meet title last week, also likely will be among the leaders. Gladstone junior Adam Bruce won the Mid-Peninsula Conference meet championship (although Yesney was unable to finish) and should find the frontrunners as well.
Reigning champion: Ishpeming
2016 runner-up: Wakefield-Marenisco/Bessemer
2017 top-ranked: 1. Ishpeming, 2. Ironwood, 3. Wakefield-Marenisco/Bessemer.
The Hematites have won three straight UPD2 championships and did so last year on the strength of five top-10 finishers, with all seven racers coming in 21st or better. Although reigning champion Grady Kerst graduated, runner-up and now-junior Spencer Giroux, ninth-place sophomore Jonah Broberg, 10th-place junior Devin Tasson and 13th-place senior Kyle Pruett fill the top of this season’s lineup. Wakefield-Marenisco/Bessemer finished 12 points back last year and returns its top six runners who all finished among the top 16 at last year’s Final, led by fourth-place senior Isaiah Aili, fifth-place junior Devon Byers and eighth-place junior Uriah Aili. Ironwood finished a distant fourth last season but also has broken into the picture with an experienced group – junior Nick Niemi was fifth last season as his team brings back its top three and four of the top seven from that race.
Individuals: Total, seven of last season’s individual top 10 will race again this weekend – all seven are mentioned above. Led by Wakefield-Marenisco/Bessemer senior Tim Rowe, six who finished between 11-20 last season also are back including Newberry juniors Chase Canfield and Evan Griffis.
Reigning champion: Chassell
2016 runner-up: Brimley
2017 top-ranked: 1. Chassell, 2. Munising, 3. Brimley.
Chassell also has won three straight titles and got past Brimley by 23 points to win last season’s championship. The Panthers bring back two of their top four, led by third-place finisher and now-junior Ben Tuomi. Brimley is fresh off a league title but also returns two of last year’s top four – with senior Austin Plotkin the individual favorite again after winning last year’s Final by 34 seconds. Munising was sixth in Division 2 last season but brings five of the top six runners from that race to this weekend’s finale.
Individuals: Cedarville sophomore Thomas Bohn came in fourth last season and only a second behind Tuomi. Stephenson senior Ethan Brown and Pickford senior Michael Satchell came in sixth and seventh, respectively, and only seven seconds back of Tuomi in third – meaning there could be a pretty tight pack chasing Plotkin, who won by 23 seconds.
PHOTOS: Houghton's Clayton Sayen (447) leads the pack during the Harger Invitational on Sept. 26 at Pictured Rocks Golf Club. Negaunee's Colton Yesney (591) is chasing and ended up winning the race. (Middle) Ishepming's Spencer Giroux came in fourth at the Harger. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)