MUNISING — Tara Kiilunen was nearly overcome with emotion shortly after the conclusion of the Division 1 race at Saturday’s Upper Peninsula Cross Country Finals at Pictured Rocks Golf & Country Club.
The Calumet High School senior became the first girl to be crowned U.P. champion for the fourth consecutive year, covering the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes, 44.7 seconds.
“This is an amazing feeling for me,” she said. “Each year you win it, there’s more pressure. This was probably the most nervous I was for a race. I just appreciate the efforts of our coaches and my family. They’ve always been supporting me. I’m grateful for everything.”
Calumet, which placed four among the top eight, was crowned team champion for the third time in four years with 41 points, followed by Escanaba with 62, Sault Ste. Marie with 84 and defending champion Marquette with 96.
For more than 2.5 miles, however, it looked as though Kiilunen would be forced to settle for the runner-up spot.
Marquette freshman Lindsey Rudden, the pre-meet favorite, appeared to be well on her way to victory.
Then, the unthinkable happened to the Great Northern Conference champion.
Rudden, who was undefeated before Saturday, passed out and needed to be helped off the course.
“People kept telling me you’re gaining on her, then I passed her in the last 800 meters,” said Kiilunen. “That’s very unfortunate for the Marquette girl. She’s a tough runner. There will be so many more races for her to win and break records. She has a real bright future.”
Kiilunen also earned her fourth West-Pac Conference title at Atlantic Mine on Oct. 11 and was named U.P. Female Runner of the Year the past three seasons.
“This just goes to show it’s never over,” Calumet coach Arne Kinnunen said. “Everything happens for a reason. Although, what happened to Lindsey is unfortunate. But how often does anybody win the U.P. Finals four years in a row. Tara is just an incredible runner and she showed that by winning 44-of-46 races through her high school career.”
Her sister, freshman Leah Kiilunen, was runner-up on Saturday at 19:50, with Menominee junior Kameron Burmeister third (19:53.3).
“The Menominee girl was pushing me the whole way,” Leah Kiilunen said. “Her coaches were giving her advice, and I was listening to them. I knew what she was going to do. Although, I can’t help but feel sorry for Lindsey because she had such a great season.”
Newberry edged Ironwood 50-52 for its first U.P. Division 2 title on this sunny and seasonably mild day. Hancock placed third with 79 points.
Ironwood junior Jessica Gering, crowned Indianhead Conference champion last week, captured her first U.P. title in 20:40.9. Gering, who took slightly more than a week off mid season due to shin pain, was followed by senior teammate Hannah Palmeter (21:27.9) and West Iron County’s Rebekah Serbinski (21:31.6).
“The shins felt better when I came back, and I got a little stronger toward the end of the season,” Gering said. “I’m just happy to win one. Overall, our team did well. Newberry has a great team. We just have to keep working together and helping each other out. Everybody was happy with how they did.”
St. Ignace senior Sarah Cullip, who earned the Division 2 title the past two seasons, added a Division 3 crown to her collection in 19:36. She was followed by teammate Lily Calcaterra (20:47.4) and Rudyard senior Leah Jarvie (20:53.3).
The Saints also were crowned U.P. champions for the first time in school history with 40 points, followed by Dollar Bay with 74 and Rudyard with 81.
“This feels awesome,” said Cullip, who also captured the Straits Area Conference title on Oct. 9. “This proves that hard work pays off. Lily was right there to push me. The competition was a little different for us this year. I just kept my eye on the competition and incoming freshmen. I was extremely nervous before the race. I just wanted to keep up the pace I’ve been working on.”
Cullip, expected to be a key player on the Saints’ basketball team, is looking forward to this season. St. Ignace captured the Class C state title in 2011 and reached the semifinals last year.
“I’m real excited for basketball,” said Cullip. “Teammates who aren’t out for fall sports are in the gym practicing hard everyday. We’ll have to prepare for little different competition (in Class D) this year.”
PHOTO: Eventual runner-up Leah Kiilunen of Calumet (9) leads a pack at the Division 1 race at Saturday's Upper Peninsula Finals at Munising (Photo courtesy of RunMichigan.com/Paul Gerard).
Rachel Forsyth ♦ Ann Arbor Pioneer
Senior ♦ Cross Country
The latest in a long line of Pioneer distance stars, Forsyth began her final high school cross country season with a nearly 26-second victory in the big-school race at the Benzie Central Pete Moss Invitational on Saturday. She ran a personal-record 17:09.24, which says a ton considering her past work; Forsyth was the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final champion in 2021 as a sophomore and the 2020 runner-up in her first trip to Michigan International Speedway. What's more, she was followed in this Benzie race by reigning Division 3 champion Jessica Jazwinski of Hart in second and last year's Division 4 champion Aiden Harrand of Buckley in third as Pioneer finished second as a team against an elite field.
An injury delayed the start of Forsyth's junior season last fall until the end of September, and she ran only 62nd at the LPD1 Final five weeks later. But she was clearly back to unstoppable during track season, setting personal records in the 3,200, 1,600, 800 and 400 while going undefeated in individual events for the spring and winning LPD1 Finals championships in the 800, 1,600 and as part of the 3,200 relay. She and her siblings have enjoyed an incredible run of success over the last decade; older sister Anne Forsyth was a four-time top-15 cross country finisher at LPD1 Finals and runner-up as a junior in 2016, and sister Sarah Forsyth twice finished among the top 10 individually and as a senior with Rachel in 2021 helped Pioneer to the team title.
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(PHOTOS by Run Michigan.)