By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Bridgman girls cross country coach Spencer Carr couldn’t recall his team having a bad meet this fall. And there were a couple of especially good showings that seemed to forecast the Bees’ historic season-ending finish.
On Sept. 21, Bridgman traveled to New Prairie, Ind., and won the Varsity A race against schools twice its enrollment of roughly 250 students. Two weeks later, the Bees finished second in the Division 4 race at the prestigious Portage Invitational, just a point off the lead.
And in both races, their top runner placed sixth individually, another coincidental sign of how the team would win its first MHSAA Finals championship in girls cross country Nov. 6 at Michigan International Speedway.
With junior Karsyn Stewart leading the way with a sixth-place individual finish, Bridgman scored 132 points to outpace four-time reigning champion Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart and lock up the title – and the honor as MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for November.
“Coming into the season, I had hopes of a top-10 finish, maybe top five if everything progressed well,” Carr said. “I never really looked at who was a contender at the top of Division 4 until we started to place high at some big meets. We knew Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart was good and had won state the year before, but it wasn't until part way through the year that I noticed they had won it the last four years.
“We talked about the challenge of beating a team like that, one with experience that always seemed to run well in the big meets. We knew it was going to be very tough to beat them because they knew how to win in the big meets, and we were pretty new to being towards the top. The girls realized early on that they could only control how they ran. If they did everything they could do to run their best race, then that would put us in a pretty good position.”
That mindset paid off well. At the Regional, Bridgman scored just 35 points placing four among the top 10 and five among the top 13. At the Final, Stewart was followed by sophomore Arie Hackett in 11th, freshman Summer Fast in 39th, sophomore Jane Kaspar in 68th and senior Mikaela Owen in 81st.
Stewart had led the way as well in 2018, when Bridgman finished 15th as a team and she finished 24th individually. She was 35th as a freshman in 2017 as the team also finished 15th – setting an early foundation for this rise to the top.
Before this fall, the Bees’ best Finals finish was fifth in Class D in 1985. They didn’t qualify as a team for the championship races again until 2015, when they finished 24th in Division 3.
Longtime coach John Wismer had built a strong boys program (Division 4 runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2010) and helped put the girls team in position before retiring after the 2016 season. Kurt Hanke led the Bees in taking the next steps in 2017 before Carr – previously the boys cross country coach at Hartford from 2010-16 – took over both Bridgman programs the following summer. He credited both predecessors for helping the Bees build toward their first title.
But this fall did have some early unpredictability. Bridgman had graduated three of its top five from the 2018 Finals lineup, including its second and third-highest placers. Carr knew he had Stewart and lone senior Owen, but other pieces had to fall into place as well.
Carr knew Kaspar had lots of potential, and that Fast had been successful in middle school. Bridgman got a major boost from Hackett, also a basketball and softball player who hadn’t run as a freshman.
They came together to win all of their races this fall but two – at Portage and against a field of much larger schools at the Kalamazoo Christian Invitational, where the Bees finished second to Grand Rapids South Christian (which went on to place 19th at the Division 2 Final). Bridgman also won its Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference title and posted a perfect score of 15 at the River Valley Mustang Invitational.
Bridgman expects to return six of its top seven runners next year; sophomore Grace Fenech and junior Alexa Ackerman followed Owen in the Finals lineup. But Sacred Heart should be back in Division 4 contention, along with third-place finisher Kalamazoo Christian – which edged the Bees at Portage. And there always could be another Bridgman-type team preparing to make a big jump – so the Bees know what they face to stay on top.
“We lost a bunch of seniors last year who really were the start of really getting the girls program going, so I wasn't really sure how good we could be,” Carr said. “I knew we had Karsyn Stewart, who was all-state the year before, and Mikaela Owen, our only senior and a great leader, but I wasn't too sure after that.
“They all came together over the summer and put in the work, and it translated into a great season.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2019-20
PHOTOS: (Top) Bridgman’s girls cross country team poses with its first MHSAA Finals championship trophy during the awards ceremony at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Arie Hackett (1699) works to keep a step ahead of Sacred Heart’s Olivia Ervin. (Photos by Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)
GRANDVILLE – Almost a year ago, Allie Arnsman didn’t know whether she would ever be able to run competitively again.
Over the last week, the Grandville senior was named Ms. Cross Country by the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association while also establishing a school record.
Arnsman suffered a broken right foot during last year’s cross country season that required surgery.
“They told me there was a small possibility of even being able to run again,” Arnsman said. “It was very scary going into the surgery thinking that there was a 90-percent chance that I wouldn’t be able to run, but I had the doctors and the physical therapists that were able to get me back.”
Arnsman sustained the injury during the third meet of her junior season when she stepped in a hole on the course.
Originally, doctors didn’t think the injury was serious.
“They kept telling us it was just a sprain, and after six weeks it would be healed,” said Arnsman, who wore a boot on her right foot.
Arnsman returned to run in the final three races of last year, and finished 17th overall in the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.
However, she still felt uncertain that her foot was completely healed.
“It was really painful when I ran and I thought something was still wrong, but I wanted to finish out my junior year and I was grateful that I did,” Arnsman said. “Right after the state meet I had an MRI, and it revealed that it was broken.”
Arnsman missed the track & field season due to her recovery after surgery. She began running again in late spring and then returned in August for her senior year.
“It was a tough injury for her to overcome, but she came back and we started talking about goals for the season,” Grandville girls cross country coach Rachael Steil said. “I told her that I thought she had the potential to finish in the top five (at the Finals) and we joked about her winning.
“She had so much untapped potential, and she did so well on little mileage. She doesn’t realize how talented she is, but with the hard work she put in I felt like it was going to be a really good season.”
Arnsman ran well throughout the season and continued to drop her times.
At the Finals, she exceeded her own expectations by placing runner-up in Division 1 behind West Ottawa’s Helen Sachs.
Arnsman finished with a time of 17 minutes, 43 seconds at Michigan International Speedway.
“I was just trying to go out with the front pack, and I wanted to stick up close and then close in in the last mile,” she said. “It was tough to catch her because she went out very fast, and I wasn't used to that pace. The weather conditions weren't great, and I just couldn't get up there.”
Still, Arnsman was ecstatic about her finish.
“I was really excited,” she said. “Coming into the season I did not think I could even be top three and I was hoping for a top 15, so placing second was amazing. It was a dream.”
Arnsman got more good news after the race as she was the top senior in all divisions and was named Ms. Cross Country.
“When they pulled me aside in the room I had the biggest smile on my face,” Arnsman said. “I knew going in that it was a possibility, but of course I didn't know right away. I was so excited.”
A week later, Arnsman ran in the MITCA Meet of Champions and became the fastest girl in Grandville school history when she finished second with a time of 17 minutes flat.
The previous record of 17:20 was set by Madison Troy in 2015.
“She was drastically improving through the season, and I knew the possibilities were endless for her,” Steil said. “She has great form, and she’s strong from all the weight training she did. She put all the little pieces together, and they came together at the right time.”
Arnsman will run for Grand Valley State next year, but it’s been a journey that was somewhat unexpected after growing up as an accomplished soccer player.
She stopped playing soccer after her sophomore year to focus on running.
“I grew up in soccer, so it was scary going into a new sport and giving up something that I loved,” Arnsman said. “It was a different sport and a whole new environment that I wasn’t used to, but I’m grateful that I was able to have the success I did. ... I never thought about running in college. I thought I would be playing college soccer.”
Arnsman, who ended her cross country career as a three-time Finals qualifier, will run indoor track & field this winter before running outdoor in the spring with her team.
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Grandville’s Allie Arnsman runs toward the finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Cross Country Final on Nov. 5. (Middle) Arnsman, bottom row center, takes her place on the medal stand next to Holland West Ottawa champion Helen Sachs, far right. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)