By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Saturday’s Upper Peninsula Boys Cross Country Finals are guaranteed to crown three first-time individual champions, and one of last season’s team title-winners is expected to be replaced as well at Beauchamp Cross Country Course.
Two-time reigning Division 3 champion Chassell comes into this weekend tied for only the No. 2 ranking in its division, with Brimley and behind favorite Stephenson, which is seeking its first championship since winning Division 2 in 2012.
Races begin Saturday with the Division 1 boys at 11 a.m. and finish with the Division 3 girls at 2 p.m. Check back Saturday evening for coverage of all six Upper Peninsula Finals, and see below for more teams and individuals to watch. The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
Reigning champion: Negaunee
2015 runner-up: Sault Ste. Marie
2016 top three: 1. Negaunee, 2. Houghton, 3. Marquette.
Negaunee remains the favorite this weekend returning five of last season’s seven runners including four who finished among the top 14 – reigning runner-up and junior Colton Yesney, and seniors Ethan Wallner (seventh), Thomas Ziegler (ninth) and Mitchell La Belle (14th). Houghton is expected to move up from fourth last season also returning five of their seven runners – junior Seth Helman led the way coming in eighth individually a year ago. Marquette won in 2013 and 2014 but slipped to third last fall; the Redmen return only two from last fall’s line-up but won their fourth straight Great Northern Conference title on the strength of individual champion Luke Rambo, a junior, and junior runner-up Garrett Rudden.
Individuals: Total, nine of last season’s top 15 are back this weekend and looking to follow graduated Marquette champion Lance Rambo. In addition to those mentioned above, Calumet senior Mitchell Delong was 10th in 2015, and Sault Ste. Marie seniors Aaron Kinsella (12th), Andrew Farlow (13th) and Ryan Sanderson (15th) helped their team to a runner-up finish.
Reigning champion: Ishpeming
2015 runner-up: Gogebic
2016 top three: 1. Ishpeming, 2. Munising, 3. Newberry.
The Hematites return three from a lineup that placed all seven runners last season among the top 15 in Division 2. Sophomore Spencer Giroux came in second, seven seconds back, and was followed by now-junior Kyle Pruett (seventh) and Kadin Fox (13th). Munising was fourth in Division 3 last season and graduated that race’s individual champion, Brett Hannah, but brings back its next three finishers led by junior T.J. Wing (10th in Division 3 in 2015). Newberry also ran in Division 3 a year ago, finishing sixth, but brings back four of its seven from that race including sixth-place now-senior Kindred Griffis.
Individuals: This could be the day’s best individual race, with Giroux working to fend off Ironwood sophomore Nick Niemi, who came in third last year, and four more non-teammates who are back from the top 15. Gogebic sophomores Cade Mazzon and Devon Byers were 12th and 15th last season, respectively, while Powers North Central junior Connor Robinson and senior Seth Polfus came in ninth and 13th.
Reigning champion: Chassell
2015 runner-up: Dollar Bay
2016 top three: 1. Stephenson, T-2. Brimley, T-2. Chassell.
Chassell has won the last two Division 3 titles but could be chasing Stephenson, which finished fifth in 2015 but has back five of last season’s six runners including junior Ethan Brown (eighth) and senior Mark Cappaert (11th). Chassell does bring back five of last season’s top seven, however, led by senior Hunter Rautiola (fifth) and sophomore Ben Tuomi (seventh). Brimley didn’t run at the Final as a team last season but returns one of four individuals who raced.
Individuals: The individual title could be wide open with the top three from last season not in this race. The highest returning placer is Dollar Bay sophomore Brendan LeClaire, who came in fourth – and only five total of the top 15 are back.
PHOTO: Runners take off during the start of the 2014 Upper Peninsula Division 3 Final.
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.)