By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — The feeling of elation had yet to replace the feeling a runner gets after laying it all on the line.
Walking away from the finish line, Tessa Fornari of Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes was breathing heavily, even though she finished with plenty of breathing room to win the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 individual cross country championship Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
"I don't think it's really sunk in yet," Fornari said as she continued to walk.
After a couple of heavy breaths and a pause, it had apparently sunk in.
"I'm gonna cry," she said.
Fornari, a senior, led last year's Division 4 Final through the mile, but faded to eighth in a race won by Ava Strenge of Battle Creek St. Philip. This year, Fornari let Strenge lead most of the way before overtaking her to win in 18:14.5. Strenge, a junior, was second in 18:23.5.
"Oh, my gosh," Fornari said. "There's so much time leading up to this one moment. All the pace work, all the pain. Finally, right here, is where it all gets paid back."
It was a wiser and more confident Fornari who stood on the start line for the first of eight races on Saturday at MIS.
She had two MHSAA championships on her resume from last spring, winning the 1,600-meter run in 5:06.39 and coming back to take the 3,200 in 11:33.70 at the LP Division 4 Track and Field Final. Last fall had represented a step backward in cross country for Fornari, who was third in the cross country finals in 2012 and second in 2013. She is a four-time regional champion.
"The 1,600 and 3,200 in track really prepared me for this," Fornari said. "A state title was kind of intimidating to me at first, but then I did it and realized it's really just a title. It's about running the best you can that day. Today I wanted to do the best I could. I know I did my best, because I can't feel my legs or my arms."
Scrapping her front-running tactics from last year, Fornari didn't make her move until shortly after the leaders entered the track. Once Fornari committed to a move, it was decisive.
"I didn't want to pass her at first, because I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep it," said Fornari, the first Our Lady of the Lakes boy or girl to win an MHSAA title in cross country. "I decided I had to do it at some point, so I did it at that turn back there. I just sprinted the last 800 meters, 1,000 meters, because I did not want to lose it. I said, 'I'm here now, I want to stay here,' so I sprinted the whole thing."
In the team race, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart staked a claim to being the best Division 4 girls team of all-time.
The Irish set an LP Division 4 record with 52 points, breaking the record of 66 set by Harbor Springs in 2009. Sacred Heart also became the first Division 4 girls team to have five runners break the 20-minute mark at MIS.
Ann Arbor Greenhills had four runners break 20 minutes in 2005, but finished third that year because its fifth runner crossed in 23:10.9.
Junior Alexis McConnell was fourth in 18:55.6, sophomore Bailley McConnell was fifth in 19:11.4, freshman Scout Nelson was 10th in 19:19.4, freshman Cammie McConnell was 17th in 19:31.2 and freshman Lauren MacDonald was 26th in 19:59.2.
The Irish could've still won by including No. 6 runner Megan Nowak (36th, 20:26.8) or No. 7 runner Rowan Fitzpatrick (20:45.0), both sophomores. All seven Sacred Heart runners broke 20 minutes in the Regional.
Sacred Heart's only other MHSAA title came in Class D in 1999. The Irish was third last season, the second-best finish in school history.
Harbor Springs was second Saturday with 119 points, while Saugatuck was third with 124. Two-time reigning champion Beal City was fourth with 156 points.
PHOTOS: (Top) Waterford Our Lady’s Tessa Fornari races down the stretch on the way to the LP Division 4 individual title. (Middle) Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart’s Bailley McConnell, left, works to stay ahead of Concord’s Samantha Saenz. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)
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.
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.
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/RunMichigan.com.)