If this fall marked the starting line for St. Joseph freshman Elena Figueroa, it’s sure to be an exciting finish for the budding talent as she progresses over the next three cross country seasons.
Having already claimed titles at a pair of Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West division meets, a victory at the Berrien County Invitational, wins in the underclassmen races at the Harper Creek Optimist Club Invitational and St. Joseph Invitational — which included times that would have placed her first and second, respectively, among the upperclassmen — and a runner-up performance at the Lakeview Invite, Figueroa leads a Bears program looking to have a strong kick as the year winds down.
“I started getting more serious last track season and started training more,” Figueroa explained. “I’ve been training since the summer, and I’ve been doing more weights and working on my strength.”
“She’s having a really solid and strong season,” veteran St. Joseph coach Mike Mahler added. “Coming into this season I knew she’d be on our varsity along with a lot of other strong runners this year, but I had no idea she’d end up being our No. 1 runner. That was a little surprising for me.”
St. Joseph competes at the Rock ‘N Run Invitational on Thursday in Dowagiac before closing out the schedule with the SMAC Championship on Oct. 23 and Lower Peninsula Division 1 Regional meet on Oct. 29 with a chance to earn spots in the Nov. 6 Finals at Michigan International Speedway. The Bears are ranked No. 14 this week in LPD1.
Along with Figueroa, seniors Riley Mullen and Jillian Tunnicliff, sophomores Grace Kelley and Cecilia Ruchti, and junior Olivia Ippel have helped fuel St. Joseph’s success this season. And though she isn’t officially part of the team, sophomore Gail Vaikutis, a transfer from Illinois who will be eligible next season, has played a critical role this year.
“She probably would be our No. 1 runner,” Mahler said of Vaikutis. “Gail is full of energy and very team-oriented and really pushing the girls in workouts. Gail and Elena have been able to train together every day. I have six girls that could be our No. 1 runner at any given point.”
But someone had to claim that spot, and Figueroa emerged as the pace setter for the Bears, setting up what will be an exciting partnership on the course with Vaikutis in years to come.
“She’s probably faster than me, and she’s been pushing me a lot at practice,” Figueroa said of Vaikutis. “Next year you will see her. We have so much talent on this team.”
Shy and humble, Figueroa is learning to deal with the newfound attention she’s getting, as well as how to navigate larger races like the ones rapidly approaching.
“Probably the only thing we need to work on is she gets really nervous when we go to a course she hasn’t run before,” Mahler said. “We just have to make sure we have plenty of time before the race to go over the course, and just keeping those nerves under control.”
At the ultra-competitive Ottawa Hills Invite, the freshman finished fifth overall in 18 minutes, 52.34 seconds. At the prestigious Portage Invitational, and while not feeling up to par, Figueroa was 34th overall in the Division 1 race. But with multiple sub-19-minute finishes already under her belt, she’s hoping to keep up with the top half of the field come Finals time.
“It was a lot of good competition (at Portage),” Figueroa said. “It was really big. I really got to see the competition and talent that is around me and the faces that I need to try to keep up with next time.”
“It’s just a great group of kids, and I’m thrilled for Elena having a super solid season,” Mahler said. “She’s coachable, she works hard, asks a lot of questions about workouts and it is exciting. I’m just so happy for the season she’s having so far, and hopefully we’ll see more improvement over the next few weeks.”
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) St. Joseph’s Elena Figueroa has won five of her nine races this season. (Middle) Figueroa (1160) leads the field during the Oct. 2 Berrien County Invitational. (Photos courtesy of the St. Joseph cross country program.)
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.)