Concord Senior Rises, Irish Stay on Top

November 4, 2017

Second Half reports

BROOKLYN — When Samantha Saenz of Concord needs training partners or racing advice, she leans upon the school’s boys team.

“I don’t have many girls on my team, so I train with the boys, so that helps,” she said. “They’re fast.”

So is Saenz.

Moving through the pack for four years, she found herself alone in front throughout the entire race Saturday on her way to the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 individual championship at Michigan International Speedway.

She became Concord’s first female Finals champion since Jenny Franssen won Class D in 1982.

The school has produced nine boys individual titles won by six runners. Saenz knows two of them, 2009 champion Kyle Stacks and three-time winner Jesse Hersha, who was a senior in 2014 when Saenz was a freshman.

“Jesse Hersha gives really good advice,” Saenz said. “I learned that pain is temporary and pride is forever. Kyle Stacks also helps with our team.”

Saenz ran a solo race up front, posting a time of 18:16.8. She has been all-state all four years, improving from 22nd as a freshman to seventh as a sophomore to third as a junior.

“It feels so good,” she said. “I’ve been working for it for four years. I finally got it. I’m so happy.”

Finishing second for the second year in a row was Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart senior Bailley McConnell, who finished in 18:44.1. Teammate Scout Nelson was third in 18:46.6.

McConnell and Nelson led Sacred Heart to its third straight team championship with a score of 39 points. Ubly was second with 138 and Lansing Christian took third with 141.

There were four McConnell sisters on last year’s championship team. Alexis McConnell graduated and junior Cammie McConnell was injured Saturday, so it was just Bailley and sophomore Desiree McConnell representing the family this year at MIS.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Bailley said. “This year it was a little different, because last year I had my two sisters actually run with me the whole time for most of it, whereas this year I ran with different teammates because I wasn’t able to run with my younger sister as much.”

Completing the scoring for Sacred Heart were Desiree McConnell (eighth, 19:21.0), Lauren MacDonald (19th, 19:56.3) and Rowan Fitzpatrick (23rd, 20:01.8).

The Irish’s score was the 10th-lowest by a girls team champion in any division or classification since the MHSAA began sponsoring a girls meet in 1978. Last year’s Sacred Heart team set a Division 4 record that ranks sixth all-time with a score of 34 points.

“It’s really nice,” Bailley McConnell said. “Working together, we’re able to stay pretty consistent, and we try to work with each other to know what we’re supposed to do.”

Junior Haili Gusa led Ubly to its runner-up finish, placing seventh in 19:15.6. It was Ubly’s best team finish, surpassing a fifth-place showing in 2004.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS: (Top) Concord’s Samantha Saenz pulls away from the field in winning Saturday’s Division 4 race. (Middle) Sacred Heart’s Scout Nelson, left, and Bailley McConnell led the Irish to a third straight team championship. (Click for more from

Grand Rapids Speedsters Dominate Division 2 Girls Cross Country Final

November 4, 2023

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.

Natalie VanOtteren leads Grand Rapids Christian's team title run with a fifth-place finish.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.

Click for full results.

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/