Houghton Girls Overcome Obstacles to Reign Again

By John Vrancic
Special for MHSAA.com

November 4, 2021

HOUGHTON — Nearly two weeks have passed since the Houghton girls captured their second-straight Upper Peninsula Division 1 cross country title.

The memories, however, could last a lifetime.

Houghton scored 52 points in the U.P. Final on Oct. 23 at Gentz’s Homestead Golf Course in Chocolay Township (near Marquette), followed by Marquette’s 69, Negaunee’s 83 and Sault Ste. Marie’s 94.

“Overall, it was a pretty good season,” said senior Ingrid Seagren, who was crowned U.P. individual champion for the first time. “I’m grateful I had the opportunity to run. We really wanted to win, and it was exciting to do that.

“This has been a great experience. My teammates and coaches were so amazing.”

Junior Claire Filpus, who missed last year’s U.P. Finals due to COVID-19, placed third in her first championship meet try. “This season was exciting,” she said. “Winning as a team makes you so happy. This was a learning experience. I was a little nervous at first, but I just wanted to see what I could do. I couldn’t run in last year’s Finals, and I know my mom (coach Traci Welch) was upset she couldn’t be there.”

Senior Paige Sleeman went to the Finals as the reigning individual champion. Although she missed time this fall due to illness, she still took eighth.

“I was out three weeks with COVID, but tried to work out on my own,” she said. “I just wanted to try to help our team win its second U.P. title in a row. I knew we could do it.

Houghton cross country“I think beating Negaunee the last couple times was a confidence boost. We’re fortunate to have a lot of kids come out. Some schools couldn’t field a full team. We knew it was going to be tough to defend our title, but we all knew we could win it. Coach Erik (Johnson) told us to run our hardest for 25 minutes.”

This marked the fifth consecutive year Sleeman was part of a U.P. championship team, including three seasons at Chassell and two at Houghton.

Although Welch was unable to attend last year’s Finals, she said COVID had an even greater effect on this year’s team.

“That’s why we lost the (Western Peninsula Athletic) Conference,” she added. “We were a couple runners short. Some of the girls didn’t have the same kind of season as last year, but they all ran their hardest. They handled their nerves well.”

Junior Jewel Laux, who overcame her bout with COVID, ran a personal-best time (22 minutes, 46.1 seconds) at the Finals.

“I hadn’t done a lot of conditioning during the summer, but I like the encouragement I got,” she said. “I didn’t start running until school started. The improvement I made was a highlight. That kind of helped me get better.”

Senior Jaden Serafin said she also enjoyed this season.

“I did okay,” she added. “I enjoyed the camaraderie. Everybody on jayvees and varsity is close knit. It’s fun being on the team. I know a lot of people on the team from the past few years.”

“It was really fun,” freshman Katie Sarau added. “I got a lot of encouragement, and that really helps me a lot. It was really exciting being on varsity, although there were more schools than I’m used to seeing at the Finals.”

The Finals were naturally a learning experience for freshman Kiira Niska as they were for Sarau.

“I was nervous, but it was fun,” she said.

Welch was happy with the way the girls overcame adversity.

“We lost Myah Campioni to a fractured ankle,” she said. “Kiira also had some injury issues, but kind of took Myah’s place and really stepped up. I don’t think Erik and I knew what our Finals lineup would be until after the conference meet.”

John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

PHOTOS (Top) Houghton's Paige Sleeman (97) and Ingrid Seagren (95) lead the UPD1 Girls Final at Gentz's Golf Course on Oct. 23 in Marquette. (Middle) Houghton's Claire Filpus takes third place in the Division 1 race. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)

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/RunMichigan.com.)