By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — Erika Freyhof didn't say a whole lot when talking about herself, even on the day she won the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 cross country championship.
What really got her to light up and open up was when the topic shifted to her team.
Hamilton's girls, who had three straight top-four finishes from 2009-11, were back in the Finals after missing out the last three years. Ending an even longer drought — like forever — was the Hamilton boys, who had never qualified for the Finals.
Even the modest finishes by those teams — 17th for the boys, 19th for the girls — couldn't dampen Freyhof's enthusiasm on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
"Our team made it, which was awesome," Freyhof said. "We had only six girls at our Regional, because one of them is injured, and we made it as a team. That's amazing. And the boys made it, which is like the first time in school history. So our whole cross country team was so excited. It was awesome."
And what about her championship performance?
"I really wanted to just go out and win," she said.
Freyhof has moved up the Division 2 ranks during her three trips to MIS. She was 15th in 19:07.6 as a freshman in 2013 and seventh in 18:45.4 as a sophomore last year.
"All of the ones in front of me last year were seniors," Freyhof said. "That was exciting when they graduated, so I could get a chance."
Her only loss in 12 meets this season was a second-place finish to Division 1 champion Madison Troy of Grandville in the Otsego Bulldog Invitational on Oct. 3.
There was only one senior in the top 11 of this Final, so there will be plenty of runners looking to build on their experience at MIS to take a shot at Freyhof's title next year.
Finishing second was Holland Christian sophomore Kayla Windemuller in 18:22.5. Linden junior Alia Frederick was third in 18:30.6.
"Last year I became the fastest freshman at my school," said Windemuller, who was 47th last season. "I just wanted to keep on improving. I figured out I love running. I just wanted to keep pushing myself to see what I could do. I started running in Girls on the Run in sixth grade. I ran in seventh grade, but I hated it so much I didn't want to do it again. Then someone convinced me to do it my freshman year."
Otsego won its first team championship by a comfortable margin, scoring 97 points. East Grand Rapids was second with 180, while two-time defending champion Grand Rapids Christian was third with 199. Linden was fourth with 205.
Otsego has moved up in the top three the last three seasons, placing third in 2013 and second in 2014. The Bulldogs returned six of their seven runners from last year's finals squad, while adding freshman Sydney Kubiak, who was the team's No. 4 runner on Saturday.
Leading Otsego from near the front of the pack were juniors Megan Aalberts (fifth, 18:38.8) and Sophia Hirzel (sixth, 18:42.1). Also scoring for the Bulldogs were sophomore Maddie Marciniak (27th, 19:02.8), Kubiak (39th, 19:19.4) and sophomore Gracie VerHage (45th, 19:26.5).
PHOTOS: (Top) Hamilton’s Erika Freyhof cruises the final stretch on the way to her first MHSAA individual title (Middle) Otsego’s Sophia Hirzel finishing sixth overall, just behind teammate Megan Aalberts, as they led the Bulldogs to their first MHSAA team championship. (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.)