By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
BROOKLYN — Jesse Hersha had just crossed the finish line with his second MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 cross country championship, but he wasn't thinking about himself.
As soon as the Concord junior finished the 3.1-mile course Saturday at Michigan International Speedway, he turned around and watched the race unfold behind him.
Of particular interest were the purple and gold jerseys of his Concord teammates, who were engaged in personal battles that would determine whether or not the Yellowjackets would win a third straight team championship.
Trying to do the math with so many bodies sprinting to the line proved to be too difficult, as did the challenge of securing a three-peat. Concord had to settle for a third-place finish with 134 points, marking the sixth straight year it finished in the top six.
"I wasn't focused on my race so much as I was focused on my team's race," Hersha said. "We didn't do as well as we would've hoped, but it happens."
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Hersha would win a second straight championship, but stranger things have happened at MIS. He dominated the field as expected, posting a time of 15:49.2 on a muddy course to win by a whopping 44.8 seconds over East Jordan senior Josh Wojan.
"It felt a lot different, because this year you knew as well as I did that I had a really good chance of winning it," Hersha said. "I'd beaten almost everyone there except (Evart's David) Zinger last year, but I still had that doubt. This year, I didn't have that doubt at all."
Hersha took off hard and didn't give anyone a chance to get into the race. Pushing himself when nobody else was around to assist was the most difficult part for Hersha.
"It's tough, but you've got to think to yourself, 'I've got to get going,'" he said. "I could jog the last 100 meters and maybe still win, but you've got to keep pushing yourself, even if no one else is pushing you."
For someone accustomed to winning easily, Hersha said his most memorable race this season was the only one he didn't win. He ran with the larger schools at the Spartan Invitational (at Michigan State University) on Sept. 13, taking third in a personal-best 15:31. He won his other 13 races this year.
"That was fun," he said. "By the time I got to the second mile, guys were catching up with me and passing me. It was a lot different."
Dethroning Concord as Division 4 champion was Saugatuck, which scored 113 points to edge Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart by eight.
The difference, as it often does, came down to the fifth and final scoring runner. Saugatuck junior Joe Brown was 40th among team runners in 17:52.2, 17 places ahead of Sacred Heart sophomore Sam Neyer (18:07.4).
Junior Jacob Pettinga led Saugatuck, placing third overall in 16:36.9. Senior Clayton Springer was seventh among team runners (16:53.7), freshman Nick Butch was third (17:27.0) and freshman Zachary Pettinga was 38th (17:48.1).
Only three Saugatuck runners had ever competed in the MHSAA meet, with three freshmen in the varsity seven. The team's best finishes ever were fourth-place showings in 2006, 2007 and 2012. Saugatuck had never qualified for the MHSAA Finals until 2001, but has now made it eight of the last 13 years.
PHOTO: Concord's Jesse Hersha extends his lead on the way to his second straight MHSAA championship. (Click to see 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.)