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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
Kent City cross country coach Jill Evers has been named the 2021-22 National Coach of the Year for girls cross country by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.
Evers was selected by a committee including representatives from all eight NFHS sections – Michigan is part of Section 4 with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The following brief bio includes an excerpt from Evers’ coaching philosophy, which nominees were asked to submit after being identified as candidates for the awards.
Jill Evers joined the Kent City athletic staff as an assistant cross country coach in 1991 after previously coaching a season each at Allegan High School and Allegan Middle School. She took over Kent City’s girls and boys varsity cross country programs in 1993 and also has served as head girls track & field coach since 1993. She led Kent City’s girls cross country team to a Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final runner-up finish in 2021, the program’s second runner-up finish under her leadership, and she’s also guided Kent City’s girls program to 15 league and seven Regional titles and nine total top-eight Finals finishes. She previously was named an NFHS Section Coach of the Year for girls track & field in 2006 after leading Kent City’s girls track & field team to its first MHSAA Finals championship in that sport, and inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012. Evers also is a longtime science teacher at Kent City and advisor and mentor for a variety of school activities in addition to coaching.
“I know people say, ‘Athletics is an extension of the classroom,’ but I believe it's so much more than that. While participating in sports, young people can learn about themselves and others, challenge themselves and grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Athletics is where we learn life lessons, such as how to lose with grace, cheer for teammates and even opponents, win with humility, deal with adversity, empathize with others, respect all those involved, be grateful for healthy bodies and opportunities to compete and push ourselves beyond what was originally thought possible. Success is different for each person, but I believe cross country lends itself to individual success. Everyone can improve and learn lifelong healthy habits. Everyone can set and achieve goals. Those who aren't as fast often earn the respect of the more gifted runners because of their perseverance. It is my job as a coach to encourage, motivate, and challenge all students who want to participate, and then congratulate them for a job well done.”
Three more Michigan coaches earned honors in Section 4. Mark Posey was honored in boys golf after leading Big Rapids to a 10th-place finish in Lower Peninsula Division 3 in 2022 after four straight Finals runner-up finishes. (There was no LP boys golf season in 2020 due to COVID-19.) Lake Orion boys lacrosse coach Ronald Hebert was honored after guiding his team to the Division 1 Quarterfinals last spring after taking the Dragons to the Semifinals in 2021. Scott Werner was honored in girls track & field after leading Pewamo-Westphalia to a runner-up finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals. P-W shared the LPD3 Finals championship in 2021 and has won titles four of the last nine seasons (not counting 2020).
The NFHS has been recognizing coaches through an awards program since 1982.