By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — Ava Strenge's goals were constantly being upgraded as she made her way along the five-kilometer cross country course at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday.
She didn't come into the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 meet as one of the favorites, having placed 73rd last year on what was admittedly a bad day.
"I was hoping for a top 10, at best," the Battle Creek St. Philip sophomore said.
Then the race started to unfold. Strenge found herself near the front of the pack, within striking distance of first place.
"Maybe at the mile point, I was second or third, and I thought I could do a top three," she said.
"I didn't think about that until that straightaway," she said.
Turning on the jets down the final long straightaway at MIS, Strenge won a three-girl battle for the championship with a time of 18:54.5.
Sophomore Alexis McConnell of Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart was second in 18:58.1, while freshman Mary Ankenbauer of Kalamazoo Hackett took third in 18:58.6.
"I was really relieved," Strenge said. "Usually the straightaways are where people get me, because I'm not a good sprinter. I can't go that fast."
Strenge beat her personal best of 19:14.6 set in the regional meet.
It was a much better finish to the season for Strenge, who ran 21:13.3 at MIS last year after dipping below 20 minutes four times during the season.
"The nerves," she said, trying to offer up a reason for last year's disappointment. "I might have overtrained that last week, because it was my first year and I was really excited. I might have overdid it."
Beal City, which returned six of seven runners from last year's championship team, repeated as the team title winner with 94 points.
Hackett was second with 108, followed by Sacred Heart with 130.
Senior Emily Steffke and junior Hannah Steffke led Beal City, taking fifth (19:15.0) and sixth (19:26.0), respectively. Senior Hayley Neyer also made the top-30 all-state range, placing 27th in 20:17.6. Freshman Madeline Steffke, the only newcomer to the lineup, was 41st in 20:40.6. Sophomore Ariel Salter completed the scoring, taking 55th in 20:55.4.
Hackett had four runners cross before Beal City’s fourth did, but there was a 16-point difference between the schools' fifth and final scorer.
PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek St. Philip’s Ava Strenge capped her sophomore season by improving 72 places to win the LP Division 4 title. (Middle) Beal City’s Emily Steffke (745) and North Muskegon’s Avery Lowe race for top-five finishes; Lowe ended up fourth and Steffke fifth for the team champion Aggies. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
BROOKLYN — Emily Tomes of Grand Rapids Catholic Central might be the first MHSAA cross country champion to go all season without winning a meet until it mattered the most.
There are two good reasons for that.
First, she runs in the Grand Rapids area, which is a hotbed for high school cross country. Her biggest league rival, Selma Anderson of Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills, was the runner-up in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final on Saturday.
Second, she was adjusting all season to a significant change in her training volume.
As a result, she had five second-place finishes in nine races and didn’t run faster than 18:25.5 until her conference and Regional meets.
“I ramped up my miles, so my legs felt tired for a lot of my races,” Tomes said. “So, that’s why I recently started running sub-18. My legs started to get used to the mileage. I was just trying to wait until this meet. This is when I was going to try to run my best.”
Tomes was the Division 2 champion, running a time of 17:31.4 on a Michigan International Speedway course that yielded fast times all day.
She won a kick down the stretch against St. Joseph senior Gail Vaikutis, who took second in 17:33.6.
“I feel like I do rely on my kick quite a bit, but I just knew it could help me pass those girls and it gives me a lot of confidence moving forward, ” Tomes said. “I have a couple postseason meets, so I’m really looking forward to those.”
It was anyone’s race when a pack of five runners reached the two-mile mark within one second of one another. It was a two-runner race coming down the straightaway, with Tomes passing Vaikutis in the final tenth of a mile.
“I don’t normally run in packs,” Tomes said. “This season kind of started off slower for me, so I wasn’t used to racing with these girls. I know they know how to run really fast. If I could just let them carry me along, it would help me out.”
Grand Rapids Christian won the team championship with a score of 112 points. Last season’s champion Otsego was second with 131.
The Eagles won their seventh MHSAA championship and first since 2014.
Senior Natalie VanOtteren, who defeated Tomes by 17 seconds at Regionals, led Grand Rapids Christian by placing fifth in 17:58.2. Sophomore Lilah Poel was 20th, sophomore Ellie Scholma 30th, senior Payton Holtz 31st and senior Naomi Nelson 65th for the Eagles.
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Emily Tomes, left, breaks away from St. Joseph's Gail Vaikutis during the closing stretch of the Division 2 Final. (Middle) Natalie VanOtteren leads Grand Rapids Christian's team title run with a fifth-place finish. (Photos by Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)