Art Stephenson’s family knows not to make any big plans in early November.
Each season of his 18-year tenure has ended the same way, with the Mendon cross country coach roaming Michigan International Speedway and motivating his runners in green.
The Mendon girls team’s appearance this weekend at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 Finals in Brooklyn marks the seventh since Stephenson took over. Previously, the boys team made 17 consecutive trips to the championship race.
Even with fourth-seeded freshman Presley Allen leading the way in an unbelievable debut season, the Hornets were on the verge of seeing that team-qualifying streak snapped. For most of the year, Stephenson’s squad didn’t have enough runners to register team points. In fact, it took until Oct. 16 at the Sturgis Kiwanis Invitational for Mendon to put together five times for a team score.
Like most small schools, Mendon struggles yearly to fill out its athletic rosters. And considering the storied histories of the Hornets’ volleyball and football programs, getting kids to choose cross country — despite its own record of consistent success — isn’t always easy. So, numbers were low this year, and with Allen missing four of the first six meets due to COVID, a team trip to MIS didn’t appear to be in the cards.
But Allen, who had nine individual victories and a school-record time of 18:37 in a runner-up performance against top-ranked Abby VanderKooi (of Muskegon Western Michigan Christian) at the Portage Invite this fall, eventually returned to full strength. And she and teammates Amber Hostetler (senior), Lauren Schabes (junior) and Chloe Behrends (senior) spent their free time recruiting anyone who would listen.
Cheerleaders Alivia Stuart (senior) and Gracey Loker (junior) answered the call as first-time runners.
“We didn’t have enough to score as a team for either boys or girls for most of the year,” Stephenson said. “We were wondering if we were ever going to with this girls team, to be honest with you. We had Alivia, who ran her heart out last Saturday (at Regionals), she came out, and so did Gracey Loker — they both came out and they have obviously been great additions to the team. They allowed us to get to this point where we’re going to the state meet.
“It is a hard thing to do and a hard thing to convince a kid to do. The least amount you’re going to do on any given day of practice is four miles. It’s a hard sell. But we do a lot of things outside of practice. We used to do more before the pandemic. We do team dinners, which is always a fun thing to do. With the smaller teams, we still have just as much fun. It’s a good thing.”
Mendon finished fourth at the Division 4 Regional at Portage Central with 92 points, trailing Kalamazoo Christian (26) and Battle Creek St. Philip (72). Allen was medalist by over a minute with a time of 19:02.09. But a 13th-place finish by Hostetler, a 23rd-place effort by Schabes, Stuart’s 34th-place run and Behrends’ 45th-place finish helped secure the Finals berth.
Allen’s rise to the top of the program’s record list required besting her cousin Kasey Culp’s time of 18:43 from 1997.
“She was cheering me on the whole time,” Allen said of Culp. “She lives in Kentucky and she was texting me and asking me … she was almost as nervous as I was.”
Having competed against most of the top-seeded runners in D4 already this season, Allen is excited to be a part of a lead pack Saturday in Brooklyn that includes VanderKooi, Buckley sophomore Aiden Harrand, Maple City Glen Lake senior Makenna Scott and Western Michigan Christian freshman Grace VanderKooi.
“It really makes me think about how they were running in each meet and what they do,” Allen said. “It has helped me know what to do when I go to state.”
“She has had a lot of success this year,” Stephenson said of Allen. “She had COVID early on in the year and we’re lucky it was early on in the year. It took her a while to get back. I think she’s back to form now and doing well. She is definitely there in that top five (at state). She is probably the most driven runner I’ve ever had. She’s amazing, and she loves to do what she’s doing — and it shows. She has a workout regimen that I defy any high schooler to do.
“Getting out clean isn’t a worry because she gets out fast. That’s always been her thing. She has only been behind a couple times this season. She’ll keep chasing if that happens. This week is going to be an awesome race because of who you have there. That’s quite a top five for a D4 Final. It is going to be a fun race to experience.”
Stephenson and Allen both agreed it will be a whole lot more fun having that experience as a team, made a whole lot sweeter after the adversity they faced in 2021.
“It doesn’t matter when we get them, as long as we get them,” Stephenson said. “Everyone is out here doing the same thing for the same cause.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Mendon’s Presley Allen leads the pack during her team’s Division 4 Regional at Portage Central. (Middle) The Hornets advanced to the Finals as a team with a third-place Regional finish. (Photos by Nicci Plummer/JoeInsider.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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)