HARVEY — The element of surprise always is a possibility in any athletic endeavor.
Gladstone High School sophomore Leigha Woelffer surprised many people including herself Saturday by earning her first Upper Peninsula Division 1 cross country championship at Gentz Homestead Golf Course in Chocolay Township.
Woelffer covered the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes, 52 seconds, followed by Marquette sophomore Amber Huebner (19:55), Sault Ste. Marie senior Michaela Rushford (19:59) and teammates Courtney Arbic (20:01) and Mackenzie Kalchik (20:11) on a cloudy, chilly and windy day.
“I wasn’t expecting this at all,” said Woelffer. “I had a dream (Friday) night that I was going to do well today, only I don’t remember (in the dream) if I won or not. I thought Amber was right behind me. In the last half-mile I was almost in shock. It was really a dream of mine to win the U.P. Finals someday. I’m real excited. I think this will give me more motivation to train hard. Everything went right for me today.”
Huebner and teammate Lindsey Rudden missed a flag during the race and were forced to retrace their steps, running an extra 200 meters.
Rudden, who was leading prior to the miscue, scrambled back into the lead. The junior, however, began to hyperventilate after the final turn and was forced to walk into the finish.
“I feel real bad for Lindsey,” said Woelffer. “She’s such a good runner. She deserved to win.”
Marquette retained its team title with 36 points, followed by Sault Ste. Marie with 42 and Calumet with 97.
“Sault came out of nowhere,” said Huebner. “We were surprised. Lindsey and I had to make up a lot of distance. I just tried to stay positive and not let it effect my run. Leigha ran a great race. I can’t wait to compete against her in track (next spring).”
Saturday’s title was the 29th overall for Marquette, which placed five among the top 10. Becci McNamee took eighth (20:40), followed by Morgan Leadbetter (20:43) and Shayla Huebner (20:47).
“Our whole group of girls ran well,” said Marquette coach Dale Phillips. “Sault has a very good team. We hadn’t seen them this year, but knew they’d be a challenge.”
Sault Ste. Marie coach Jim Martin was happy for the Blue Devils.
“The girls ran their hearts out today,” he said. “The weather was absolutely brutal, but they fought through it. We were right there. Marquette has an excellent program and a great tradition. Our girls had great senior leaders this year. Our number seven runner (Alexis Scott) really stepped up and was our fifth runner today. I’m real happy for the girls because they all worked so hard for this.”
Ishpeming captured the crown for the first time with 32 points, marking its first U.P. title since 1980 when it was competing in Class C-D. Defending champion Hancock scored 52, followed by Ishpeming Westwood at 55.
Westwood junior Katie Etelamaki earned her first individual championship in 20:51, followed by Iron River West Iron County senior Tori Harris (21:36), Manistique senior Olivia Holmberg (21:43), Norway junior Kyra Johnson (21:44) and Ishpeming’s Khora Swanson (21:53).
“I definitely didn’t think I’d win by that big a margin,” said Etelamaki, who also claimed the Mid-Peninsula Conference title the previous week.
“I started to get some separation at mile 2 and tried to stay focused and push myself. I’m really not sure what made the difference in the end, but I think winning the M-PC gave me some confidence for today’s race.”
Chassell earned its first Division 3 crown with 60 points, followed by St. Ignace with 86 and Dollar Bay with 93.
“This is amazing,” said Chassell coach Marco Guidotti. “The kids earned it, that’s for sure. We were worried about St. Ignace. We knew they’d be a challenge. Our girls and guys were tough today. We’re prepared for any kind of weather. This is why we train in all kinds of conditions.”
Newberry junior Natalie Beaulieu won for the first time in 20:56, followed by Munising freshman Alyssa Webber (21:10), Cedarville sophomore Emma Bohn (21:16), Brimley’s Emily Chartrand (21:37) and Chassell eighth-grader Lela Rautiola (21:42).
“I wanted to stay with Emma,” said Beaulieu, who had been battling leg problems much of this season. “Then at 1 1/2 miles, I felt good and took off. But it was a bit painful, and the mud didn’t help. It was kind of a balancing act in the end. I wanted to kick it in, yet I also wanted to play it safe.”
This marked Beaulieu’s first experience in Division 3 after placing third last year and fourth as a freshman two years ago in Division 2.
“I really didn’t think it was different,” she said. “The competition is still there.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Gladstone’s Leigha Woelffer (36) runs with the front pack on the way to winning the Division 1 championship. (Middle) The Ishpeming girls claimed their first MHSAA title since 1980. (Below) Newberry’s Natalie Beaulieu breaks away en route to winning the Division 3 race. (Photo courtesy of RunMichigan.com/Paul Gerard.)
Kent City cross country coach Jill Evers has been named the 2021-22 National Coach of the Year for girls cross country by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.
Evers was selected by a committee including representatives from all eight NFHS sections – Michigan is part of Section 4 with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The following brief bio includes an excerpt from Evers’ coaching philosophy, which nominees were asked to submit after being identified as candidates for the awards.
Jill Evers joined the Kent City athletic staff as an assistant cross country coach in 1991 after previously coaching a season each at Allegan High School and Allegan Middle School. She took over Kent City’s girls and boys varsity cross country programs in 1993 and also has served as head girls track & field coach since 1993. She led Kent City’s girls cross country team to a Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final runner-up finish in 2021, the program’s second runner-up finish under her leadership, and she’s also guided Kent City’s girls program to 15 league and seven Regional titles and nine total top-eight Finals finishes. She previously was named an NFHS Section Coach of the Year for girls track & field in 2006 after leading Kent City’s girls track & field team to its first MHSAA Finals championship in that sport, and inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012. Evers also is a longtime science teacher at Kent City and advisor and mentor for a variety of school activities in addition to coaching.
“I know people say, ‘Athletics is an extension of the classroom,’ but I believe it's so much more than that. While participating in sports, young people can learn about themselves and others, challenge themselves and grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Athletics is where we learn life lessons, such as how to lose with grace, cheer for teammates and even opponents, win with humility, deal with adversity, empathize with others, respect all those involved, be grateful for healthy bodies and opportunities to compete and push ourselves beyond what was originally thought possible. Success is different for each person, but I believe cross country lends itself to individual success. Everyone can improve and learn lifelong healthy habits. Everyone can set and achieve goals. Those who aren't as fast often earn the respect of the more gifted runners because of their perseverance. It is my job as a coach to encourage, motivate, and challenge all students who want to participate, and then congratulate them for a job well done.”
Three more Michigan coaches earned honors in Section 4. Mark Posey was honored in boys golf after leading Big Rapids to a 10th-place finish in Lower Peninsula Division 3 in 2022 after four straight Finals runner-up finishes. (There was no LP boys golf season in 2020 due to COVID-19.) Lake Orion boys lacrosse coach Ronald Hebert was honored after guiding his team to the Division 1 Quarterfinals last spring after taking the Dragons to the Semifinals in 2021. Scott Werner was honored in girls track & field after leading Pewamo-Westphalia to a runner-up finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals. P-W shared the LPD3 Finals championship in 2021 and has won titles four of the last nine seasons (not counting 2020).
The NFHS has been recognizing coaches through an awards program since 1982.