BLOOMINGDALE — High fives, music and a hallway full of students gave the Bloomingdale cross country teams an enthusiastic sendoff as they departed for the MHSAA Finals at Michigan International Speedway two weeks ago.
“We left school early on Friday,” coach Alan Bobalik said. “All the kids were in the hallway, the band played the fight song.
“We walked through the hallway and kids were high-fiving the team. It was pretty cool.”
What was even cooler was that the girls already had carved out a place in the Cardinals’ history book.
A week earlier, they became the first team in any sport in school history to win an MHSAA Regional championship.
“At the beginning of our cross country season, we write down our goals as a team and that was our goal,” said Nelly Gonzalez, one of two seniors on the team. The other five runners were sophomores.
To add to the celebration, the runners had fun watching their coach navigate Walmart and then eat dinner wearing a red and black wig as their reward for the Regional win at Centreville.
“We spent Friday night (before states) in Coldwater and ate at the Broadway Grill,” Bobalik said. “I had to wear the wig when we went out to eat as a team. It was nice, black and red, and went down to my shoulders.
“We stopped for snacks at Walmart and I wore it around the store. We got some interesting looks.”
One person was not impressed.
“My daughter (Annabelle, 3½ years old) was confused,” he said. “She thought I was a different person, scared or confused and didn’t want to look at me.”
The girls finished 17th in Division 3 at the Finals while the boys placed 16th.
“I’m sure (the boys) won’t let the girls forget that,” said Bobalik, in his fourth year as head cross country coach and as an assistant for track & field. (The boys team finished second at its Regional, just two points off the lead.)
Four years ago, Gonzalez would have laughed if someone told her she would not only run cross country but also lead the team at the Finals with a time of 20:28.5.
“I was playing volleyball my freshman year,” she said. “I (didn’t play) volleyball my sophomore year, and my coaches and especially Liza (Hutchins) pushed me to run. I really did not want to, but I ran.
“I hated it at first because I didn’t like the running, but now I really enjoy it.”
Gonzalez agreed to join the team to get in shape for basketball and track, where she holds the school record in the 3,200 meters (12:15).
Examples and Inspirations
Bobalik, who ran cross country at Sturgis High School, and assistant coach Tina Bertuca practice with the team.
“I try to run with the girls,” he said. “Keep up? No comment. They’re getting older and faster. I’m getting older and slower.
“Coach Bertuca can keep up.”
Bertuca, the girls head track coach, qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon. She also competed there last April.
Hutchins, the other senior on the team, was inspired by her aunt, Andrea Hutchins.
“My aunt did (cross country) when she was in high school (at Watervliet) and went to college and ran,” Hutchins said. “She’s been a person I looked up to when I started running.”
Hutchins, who also runs the 1,600 and 3,200 in track, said she has one regret.
“My freshman year and my sophomore year I took (cross country) as getting in shape for basketball,” she said. “But ever since time has gone on, it’s become my best sport that I’ve ever done and I wish I would have done it in middle school.
“I fell in love with the sport, and now I want to run in college. I have (University of) Michigan-Dearborn on my mind right now.”
Gonzalez said she hopes this year’s success inspires next year’s team.
“My sophomore year we really didn’t have a team at all. It was really just me, Liza, Heather (Davis) who already graduated,” Gonzalez added.
“Last year, we had a team and the girls were all awesome and we accomplished a lot.””
This year’s team overcame a stumbling block at Regionals.
“We had a girl (Kallie Harrison) who was very sick Thursday and Friday who didn’t get out of bed, and she came in Saturday and ran really, really tough,” Bobalik said. “She hadn't fully recovered before state.”
“Everyone stepped up. We knew she was sick. Olaisa Moss ran a great race. She really pushed herself and ran her fastest time of the season. Marta Douglas, Maria Herrera ran well and Aimee Sustaita was a Regional medalist this year after finishing 23rd last year. Everyone stepped up that day to help out their teammate.
“I knew we had a chance to win, but it didn’t just happen. We had to earn it.”
Said athletic director Alan Farnquist: “"These girls are an incredibly unique group of athletes. They genuinely get more excited for their teammates than they do for themselves, and I think that's what sets them apart.
“They work hard for each other, and they exemplify what student athletics should be about."
Bobalik said the challenge for next year’s team is to keep the success going.
“We have two great seniors who are big shoes to fill, not only running but as teammates, as leaders, as individuals,” he said.
“The girls on the team and the guys on the team, are they going to be content just having one year of success, two years of success? Or do the middle school kids coming up want to be a part of something special? Or do the returning girls next year want to continue going?”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Bloomingdale girls cross country team, during the Nov. 3 MHSAA Lower Peninsula Finals at Michigan International Speedway. (Top middle) Bloomingdale head coach Alan Bobalik and assistant Tina Bertuca, and then Bobalik in his celebratory wig. (Middle) Nelly Gonzalez powers toward the finish during her team’s Regional victory. (Below) Seniors Liza Hutchins and Gonzalez hold the first Regional trophy won by the school in any sport. (Photos courtesy of Bloomingdale’s athletic department; head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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.