Second Half reports
BROOKLYN — It was a dream that formulated in the mind of a young runner before he ever put on a Fremont High School cross country singlet.
“It’s something I’ve been working for the last five, six years probably,” senior Nathan Walker said after winning the MHSAA Division 2 championship Friday at Michigan International Speedway.
“It’s a dream come true. I’ve come to state meets since when I was in middle school. I was like, ‘That would be pretty cool to do.’”
Even cooler — and of more importance to Walker — was winning a second straight team championship with longtime teammates. Fremont scored 61 points to outdistance runner-up St. Johns, which had 126.
Fremont has won four Division 2 championships and finished second five times over the last 20 years.
“Fremont pulled the back-to-back,” Walker said. “I put that above the individual title for me.”
Walker led the way, cruising to an emphatic individual victory with a time of 15 minutes, 19.39 seconds on a windy afternoon with temperatures in the low 70s.
He covered the 3.1-mile MIS course alone, leading by eight seconds after a 4:51.4 opening mile and 27 seconds after reaching the two-mile mark in 9:49.0.
“I was just trying to get out there in the first mile, get comfortable, get into a rhythm,” Walker said. “In the middle part of the race, stay smooth and relaxed, try to crank it in the last mile. That didn’t go completely to play. It is what it is.”
Pinckney junior Caleb Jarema was second in 15:42.97, establishing himself as the favorite for next year.
Walker was a four-time all-stater, placing 28th as a freshman, fifth as a sophomore and fourth as a junior.
“Honestly, I did not feel the greatest,” Walker said. “It heated up. The wind kind of ate me up a little bit. I was sticking tough in the second half of the race, but it probably wasn’t my greatest showing. It’s done now. I’m happy with the placing.”
Fremont’s top five runners all made all-state by placing among the top 30. Conor Somers was fifth in 16:02.55, Ben Paige was 18th in 16:31.55, Joshua Zerfas was 26th in 16:37.39 and Adam Ward was 27th in 16:38.57 to complete Fremont’s scoring.
“It’s been an honor racing with those guys, some of them the last six, seven years,” Walker said. “It’s definitely helpful to have that culture, along with the coaches that we have.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Fremont’s Nathan Walker approaches the finish line well ahead of the Division 2 field Friday at MIS. (Middle) Fremont’s Conor Summers and St. Johns’ Ryan Brown close in on top-10 finishes. (Click for 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.)