Second Half reports
BROOKLYN – What Dearborn’s Riad Rababeh accomplished with a minimal amount of work was pretty remarkable.
The result of his effort was the MHSAA Division 1 individual championship Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
Rababeh had the fastest time of the day in all four divisions, posting a 15:24.8 on a course that had some muddy sections to win by a 16-second margin over Alpena senior Mitchell Day.
A year ago, Rababeh shocked himself by placing eighth in the MHSAA meet in 15:30.8. The year before, he was 124th in 16:45.7. As a freshman, he was 32nd in his Regional in 17:38.3, which didn’t come close to qualifying for the MHSAA Finals.
“My junior year, I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Then I went into cross country season and ran 15:30 at states and puked my brains out. This year, I peaked around 65 miles in the summer and I was doing a lot of workouts and a lot of good stuff. I legitimately trained this summer, and it paid off in the end.”
This year’s race was expected to be a battle between Day and Rockford junior Cole Johnson, who were second and third, respectively, last season. With newfound fitness, Rababeh joined the two of them at the front, then began to pull away at 2.5 miles.
He became the first Dearborn runner since 1930 to win the MHSAA individual boys cross country title, something he never imagined when he was far back in the pack two years ago.
“Maybe top 50, I was hoping, but my junior year just accelerated into something beyond what I ever thought it would be,” Rababeh said. “Now I’m here.”
In the team competition, White Lake Lakeland won its first MHSAA championship since taking back-to-back Class A crowns in 1996 and 1997. Lakeland, ranked fourth in the state, scored 125 points to easily beat runner-up Saline, which had 198.
Birmingham Brother Rice was third with 220, while top-ranked Novi was fourth with 225.
Lakeland put four runners in the top 26 in the team race. Sophomore Harrison Grzymkowski led the Eagles, finishing third overall and second among team runners in 15:51.4.
Also scoring for Lakeland were senior Zack Werth (21st, 16:18.6), senior Joel Woody (25th, 16:22.7), junior Drew Wenger (26th, 16:23.8) and junior Angelo Savich (51st, 16:43.0).
None of the other team contenders had more than two runners in the top 39 in the team scoring.
The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Dearborn’s Riad Rababeh (206) stays a pace ahead of contenders Cole Johnson of Rockford and Mitchell Day of Alpena. (Middle) White Lake Lakeland’s Harrison Grzymkowski pushes through to finish third and lead his team to a 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.)