Freshman Setting Pace as St. Joseph Finds Footing Among State's Best

By Wes Morgan
Special for

October 12, 2021

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.

Elena Figueroa“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, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] 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.)

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/