By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Team and individual history is waiting to be made at Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Boys Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway.
A year ago, the final state rankings predicted all four champions – and if they’re accurate again, Plymouth will celebrate its first title in this sport. Meanwhile, Caro’s Yami Albrecht will try to lead the Tigers to their first title in four decades, while becoming just the 15th boys runner to win a third individual Finals championship.
A total of 977 runners will take to the course at MIS for the boys races, which begin the day with Division 4 at 9:30 a.m. Below are some of the teams to watch and a glance at each of the individual fields. Click for all Finals qualifiers, a map of the course and links to buy tickets and watch the Finish Line camera on MHSAA.tv, and come back to Second Half later Saturday for coverage of all four meets. (NOTE: “Rankings” of individual runners below are based on data at Athletic.net, which orders runners based on the single fastest times they’ve run this season.)
Reigning champion: Ann Arbor Pioneer
2017 runner-up: Plymouth
2018 top-ranked: 1. Plymouth, 2. Ann Arbor Pioneer, 3. Clarkston.
Plymouth’s runner-up finish in 2017 was its highest ever at an MHSAA Finals, and the Wildcats are predicted to take the next step Saturday after finishing second last year by a mere three points. Five of last season’s top six runners return this weekend, led by junior Carter Solomon (fifth in 2017). Plymouth took three of the top four places at its Regional, with Solomon the individual champ in 14:59.4. His 14:59 flat on Oct. 13 is tied for the fastest time in the state this fall. Pioneer brings back three of its top six from last season’s championship team, led by individual champ Nick Foster – his season best of 15:03.1 ranks him third fastest in the state this fall. Clarkston finished eighth last season but with one senior and none in the top five – the other six all return, and senior Brendan Favazza’s 15:16.2 on Oct. 17 ranks him as the eighth-fastest runner statewide.
Individuals: In addition to Foster and Solomon, six more from last season’s top 20 will run this weekend. White Lake Lakeland senior Harrison Grzymkowski should contend again after finishing third in 2017, while Romeo junior Jack Wilson (ninth) also is back from the top 10. Birmingham Seaholm senior George Nummer (10th), Lake Orion junior Andrew Nolan (14th), Brighton junior Zachary Stewart (15th) and Holland senior Sam Martens (20th) also return. Stewart’s 15:08 on Oct. 18 makes him the fourth-ranked runner regardless of division.
Reigning champion: Chelsea
2017 runner-up: Corunna
2018 top-ranked: 1. Chelsea, 2. Fremont, 3. Corunna.
Chelsea broke through for its first championship in this sport a year ago, and four of the top six from that team return – and all four rank among the top 20 runners in Division 2, led by senior Jensen Holm (11th in 2017). Fremont was runner-up in 2016 and 2014 and won the title in 2015, and finished sixth last season with four freshmen among its top five. They’re sophomores now, and Nathan Walker’s 15:34.3 to win his Regional ranks him sixth in the division. Corunna senior Ben Jacobs is another standout, and his 15:34.7 personal record run Oct. 6 puts him seventh. He finished third overall last season and is among four of Corunna’s top six from the runner-up finish who will try to carry the team to its second championship in three seasons.
Individuals: Otsego senior Alex Comerford has finished 13th, ninth and last season second at the Finals, and his 14:59 on Sept. 29 is tied for the fastest time in the state this fall. He and Jacobs are joined by Linden junior Tyler Buchanan (sixth) and Dearborn Divine Child juniors Michael Hancock (eighth) and Anthony Hancock (ninth) as half of last season’s top 10 are back. Grosse Ile senior James Gedris (15th), Grand Rapids South Christian junior Micah VanderKooi (18th) and Spring Lake senior Andrew Hylen (19th) also are top returning placers. Grant senior Colten Covington was 12th in Division 3 last year.
Reigning champion: Hanover-Horton
2017 runner-up: Caro
2018 top-ranked: 1. Caro, 2. Pewamo-Westphalia, 3. Hanover-Horton
Caro missed its first championship in this sport since 1980 by six points last season, but is the favorite this time with all seven runners back from the runner-up finish. The Tigers are led by senior and reigning two-time individual champion Albrecht – his 15:28.7 on Sept. 29 ranks him second among Division 3 runners this fall and 15th regardless of division – and senior Aaron Hurlburt was 20th individually at last year’s Final. Pewamo-Westphalia finished 10th last season after winning the Division 4 title in 2016 and returns four of last season’s top five led by junior Hayden Germain (23rd in 2017, ranking 11th this fall). Hanover-Horton graduated three of its top four from a year ago but returns its other four runners from the championship team.
Individuals: Albrecht will face strong competition as he runs for the three-peat. Harbor Springs senior Jeremy Kloss finished second to Albrecht both of the last two seasons after running seventh as a freshman. Dundee senior Colin Kane was sixth a year ago and has the fastest time in Division 3 this season, 15:25.9 to win his Regional. Morley Stanwood junior Aiden McLaughlin (seventh), Ithaca senior Ransom Allen (eighth), Holland Black River senior Sam Sharnas (11th), Stockbridge junior Micah Beauregard (14th) and Bad Axe senior David Knarian (17th) also are back from last season’s top 20.
Reigning champion: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
2017 runner-up: Potterville
2018 top-ranked: 1. Saugatuck, 2. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, 3. Breckenridge.
Two top-10 individual finishers led Saugatuck to a 12th-place team finish in Division 3 in 2017, and total three of the top five from that team return. Senior Corey Gorgas was fourth in Division 3 the last two years and has the top time in Division 4 this season at 15:13.3, while sophomore Nik Pettinga took 10th in Division 3 a year ago. Sacred Heart isn’t going to just give the title back, of course; the team’s top four (and five of the top seven) are back. Breckenridge is running for its first Finals championship since 1976, and after missing the Finals completely last season. Freshman Mason Sumner ranks fourth among Division 4 runners with a 16:02.8 run Sept. 19.
Individuals: Plymouth Christian Academy senior Luke Pohl finished runner-up last season and ranks second among Division 4’s fastest this season. He is joined by Walkerville junior Shane Achterhof (fifth) and Johannesburg-Lewiston sophomore Carlos Gascho (seventh) among top-10 finishers back from a year ago. Beal City senior Alex Taylor (12th) and Ellsworth senior Isaiah Romeyn (19th) also could be in the mix again.
PHOTO: Caro’s Yami Albrecht (415) and Harbor Springs’ Jeremy Kloss (466) run as part of the lead pack during a stretch of last season’s Division 3 championship race at Michigan International Speedway. (Click for 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.)