FLAT ROCK — Early in Saturday’s Upper Peninsula Cross Country Finals, there was a feeling Negaunee junior Colton Yesney was about to break the 16-minute barrier for five kilometers at Beauchamp’s Grove.
“This is amazing,” said the reigning Division 1 champ. “It just feels unreal. I needed to do this for our team. They’ve been good to me, and I just wanted to pay them back.”
The Negaunee boys retained their crown with 38 points, followed by Houghton with 56, Marquette 92, Sault Ste. Marie 96 and Calumet with 160.
“Colton ran an unbelievable race,” said Negaunee coach Lisa Bigalk. “I’m just amazed. Our goal for him was to break 16. It’s incredible how he can push himself when the guys aren’t with him.
“Our whole team was bound and determined to defend its title. We have four seniors who wanted to go out on top. It was nice to see them perform at their absolute best for two years.”
Yesney was clocked at 5:14 at the mile and 10:04 at two miles.
“I wasn’t thinking about time at that point (two miles) of the race,” said Yesney. “I just played it by ear. Then, people were yelling out my time as I was coming into the finish, and I just gave it everything I had. I run for my teammates. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be the runner I am.”
Marquette junior Garrett Rudden, who overcame a recent injury (pulled muscle above his hip), was runner-up at 16:25.9, followed by Houghton’s Clayton Sayen (16:27.4), Negaunee’s Thomas Ziegler (16:30.4) and Houghton’s Seth Helman (16:42.7).
Ishpeming earned its third consecutive Division 2 title with 29 points, followed by Gogebic with 41, Newberry 106, Ironwood 110 and Hancock at 136.
“We knew our boys were going to win,” said Pruett. “We knew Gogebic had a good team, but we went head-to-head with Negaunee (two-time reigning Division 1 champs) all year, which prepared us well for this meet.”
Ishpeming senior Grady Kerst gained his first D-2 title at 16:24.3, followed by sophomore teammate Spencer Giroux (16:35.4), Newberry senior Kindred Griffis (16:37.3), Gogebic’s Isaiah Aili (16:52.9) and Ironwood sophomore Nick Niemi (16:53).
“This is about the same time I ran here two weeks ago,” said Kerst, who was crowned D-3 champion while a student at Munising two years ago. “This is a little disappointing in a way because I was hoping to shave some time off. Although, this victory is more satisfying than the one two years ago because there was more competition this time. The kid from Newberry really helped me. He was with me at two miles, then I started picking it up. He’s a good runner. This is a real fast course and the perfect temperature for me.”
Chassell achieved a three-peat in Division 3 with 54 points, followed by Brimley with 77, Stephenson 81, Cedarville 126 and Powers North Central with 149.
“I’m very pleased with everyone’s effort today,” said Chassell coach Marco Guidotti. “I think the boys benefitted from strong senior leadership. They brought everything they had.
“There was such strong competition here today. We feel fortunate to have an opportunity to come here and compete.”
Brimley freshman Austin Plotkin won in 17:02, followed by Dollar Bay sophomore Brendan LeClaire (17:24.9), Chassell’s Ben Tuomi (17:36.1), Cedarville’s Thomas Bohn (17:38.5) and Chassell’s Hunter Rautiola (17:43.4).
“I try to go for long strides to conserve energy,” said Plotkin, the overall Eastern U.P. Conference champion. “I also try to keep my breathing slow. I got him (LeClaire) on the hill about ¾ mile into the race and gained some separation.
“When I started running last spring, I worked a lot on my form. It feels great to win, although I just do it for fun.”
The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Negaunee’s Colton Yesney charges toward the finish in leading his team to the Division 1 championship. (Middle) Ishpeming’s Grady Kerst (185) leads the pack in the Division 2 race. (Below) Chassell poses with its Division 3 trophy after a third straight Finals win. (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.)