By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — It's not every high school cross country program that can lean upon the wisdom of an alumnus who is a three-time Olympian.
Rockford is no ordinary program, however.
Rockford cross country was put on the map by two runners who would become elite competitors in major races, Jason Hartmann and Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritzenhein is one of America's most recognizable runners, making the last three U.S. Olympic teams.
"Ritz" is living back in Michigan while training for next year's U.S. Olympic marathon trials, making him accessible to the current group of Rams, for whom he's a running idol.
Ritzenhein spoke with this year's team as it prepared to do something that not even the great teams led by he and Hartmann could do — win back-to-back MHSAA championships. Every little bit helped, as the Rams squeaked out a 99-101 victory over Northville in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 meet Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
Senior Isaac Harding won in 15:10.4, becoming Rockford's first individual champion since the four-year run of Hartmann (1997 and 1998) and Ritzenhein (1999 and 2000).
"It's kind of nice to sort of race through his footsteps a little bit," Harding said of Ritzenhein. "He supports the Rams. He talked to our team a little bit earlier this week. He reminds us to stay composed for the end of the season, supporting us and stuff like that."
Rockford had two MHSAA titles, in 2000 and 2002, before winning these back-to-back championships. The Rams, who have been to 21 straight MHSAA Finals, were runners-up three straight years from 1997-99.
"Winning the state meet last year was really exciting," Harding said. "We came back this year with four of our top five back. We had our fifth guy step up."
Harding, sophomore Cole Johnson, senior Grant Gabriel and senior Grayson Harding scored for Rockford each of the last two years. Johnson was third in 15:15.0, Gabriel 34th in 16:00.3 and Harding 39th in 16:04.4. Rounding out the scoring was senior Matthew MacGregor, who ran 16:24.9 in his first MHSAA Finals.
Northville had five runners cross among the top 33 among team runners, while Rockford's were in the top 54. Northville, however, couldn't overcome Rockford's strength at the top in Harding and Johnson.
In the individual race, Harding bided his time in windy conditions before breaking away from Alpena junior Mitchell Day in the final quarter mile. There were four runners in contention as the leaders entered the track.
"My goal was to make a move in the last 1,200 (meters) or 1K," Day said. "Four people did, then in the last 300, 400 meters is when the two of us made another move. He kind of took off."
Harding is the only member of the current Rockford team to run in the Finals for four years. He has improved every year in place and time, going from 70th (16:14.6) to 31st (16:06.8) to fourth (15:23.2) to champion.
"It's been kind of a really long road," Harding said. "Since my freshman year, I've been looking at results, trying to think if I can beat most of the people in my grade. Toward the end of my freshman year, I started thinking I could just try to work my way up the ladder and get to the top so my senior year I came through first."
It's the third straight year Northville has produced the best boys finish in school history. The Mustangs were fifth in 2013 and fourth last year. Prior to this run, the Mustangs' back-to-back ninth-place showings in 1977 and 1978 represented the high-water mark for the program.
Junior Ben Cracraft was 14th in 15:42.1, while senior Conor Naughton was 15th in 15:42.5 to lead Northville. Naughton has been part of all three top-five teams.
Novi was third with 176 points.
PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s Isaac Harding pushes down the final stretch on the way to winning his first MHSAA title. (Middle) Rockford senior Grant Gabriel, 121, leads another pack toward the finish. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)
BROOKLYN — On the same day Rockford’s Dathan Ritzenhein set a course record at Michigan International Speedway that has never been approached, Kurtis Marlowe of Richland Gull Lake had a performance that was overshadowed.
But Marlowe’s winning time of 15:02.5 in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals in 2000 also stood the test of time.
Freeland junior TJ Hansen eclipsed the Division 2 record with his winning time of 14:52.8. Runner-up Solomon Kwartowitz of Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood also nearly broke the previous record, finishing in 15:03.3.
Even though it was apparent from earlier races Saturday that perfect conditions made fast times possible, Hansen didn’t set out to break Marlowe’s record.
“No, my goal was to go out and win,” he said. “Play strategy from the front, let others do the work, then just push it. Whatever time I got, I was gonna get. I knew it was going to take a time like that to win it today.
“I usually run close to a (personal record) every year at this meet. It’s one of my favorite courses. It’s definitely unique here at the speedway, so I really like the course, I really like to run it.”
Hansen went through the mile mark tied for 11th in 4:54.3, but you could’ve thrown a blanket over the top 12 runners at that point.
It was a three-man race between Hansen, Kwartowitz and 2022 champion Connell Alford of Chelsea when they reached the two-mile mark in 9:46.
Hansen made sure there would be no drama coming down the stretch.
“I was just trying to stay calm, let them do the work, just sit back,” he said. “When I needed to go, I was gonna go. My goal was to stay relaxed.”
Kwartowitz had no complaints with his race.
“It felt really smooth,” he said. “It was great. I didn’t get a chance to race these guys a bunch this year. I did at Spartan (Invitational, in September). I was really hoping to end it with a victory.”
The boys Division 2 team championship was a toss-up between four teams for the second year in a row, with Ada Forest Hills Eastern coming out on top with 134 points. Pinckney was second with 156, East Grand Rapids third with 175 and Allendale fourth with 176.
Last year, 32 points separated the top four teams.
Junior Henry Dixon led Forest Hills Eastern, placing sixth in 15:16.0. Senior Liam Hinman was 29th, senior Brendan Hoving was 30th, senior Cooper Jacobsen was 38th and junior Tyler Endres was 82nd.
It was the first MHSAA championship for Forest Hills Eastern, which had a program-best finish of fourth in 2007.
PHOTOS (Top) Freeland's TJ Hansen approaches the finish of his record run Saturday at MIS. (Middle) Henry Dixon sets the pace for Forest Hills Eastern's first team championship. (Photos by Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)