When dozens of Kingston elementary students made the decision during the mid-2010s to run cross country, they didn’t realize what they were building.
But their coach, Melinda Freeland, knew that for the program she was building to have a chance at success, it needed a foundation – even if it was more about simply getting involved with something positive at the time.
“It was always a fun thing,” she said. “There was never any pressure. It was just, ‘Do this race, have some snacks, and have a good time.’”
Fast forward to 2022, and the Kingston girls, all of whom had started running in third, fourth or fifth grades, found themselves finishing among the top four as a team at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 Final.
“I had high aspirations and high goals all the way through,” Freeland said. “I knew it was a good group when I started coaching them. Eight years ago, I had these kids as elementary kids. On both sides (boys and girls), I’ve been coaching them for a long time.”
The 2022 season wasn’t a culmination, however. It feels more like the beginning of the next step for the Cardinals, who have their top six runners back.
While the division’s top teams were filled with underclassmen – Johannesburg-Lewiston, Hillsdale Academy and Whitmore Lake, which finished ahead of Kingston, graduated a combined five runners from their top 7s – Kingston’s strong group of returners has the team excited as well about what’s ahead.
“We think it would be awesome to get top three, that’s something that we’re keeping in the back of our heads,” senior Gracy Walker said. “We want to start out strong this year. We started summer workouts in June, and it’s been pretty consistent since June. We’re definitely going to be more in shape this year. Our workouts have been a lot more intense.”
Spending significant offseason time on a sport can be tough in Kingston, where the best athletes are needed for multiple sports throughout the year, or sometimes during a single season.
Walker, for example, is part of the Cardinals’ highly-successful basketball program, which also demands quite a bit of a player’s time during the summer months.
“You just kind of have to find a way to make all of it work,” she said. “I have cross country in the morning and basketball at night. You try to make it work and do the best you can.”
Walker is one of two seniors, along with Zoe Van Rijn, on a still-young Kingston team. Meegan Flikkie is the lone junior, while three sophomores – Lilah Kiley, Molly Walker and Hailey McGuire – are back for their second seasons. Freshman Violet Tetil joins the group, which does feature just seven runners.
“I think we’re all so close together in our times, if one person can’t go 100 percent that day, the other person makes up for it,” Van Rijn said. “But we push each other more at practice. We all push each other to go better, and that really helps us. It’s so much fun going to practice every day. We’re more than just teammates – these are some of my closest friends.”
While Gracy Walker had the highest finish (24th) at the Final last fall, it’s Kiley that spent the majority of the season as the Cardinals’ No. 1 runner. Her personal best of 19 minutes, 45.6 seconds, which was good for second at the Regional meet, was the team’s best time of the season.
She started running in third grade, and she credits that extra time running competitively with having her ready to compete as a freshman – even if she wasn’t 100 percent sure what she was getting into at first.
“I always liked watching the Olympics, and honestly, when I thought about cross country, I automatically thought about track,” Kiley said. “I didn’t think I was going to be running around the yard and stuff. My first cross country meet, I was very surprised. I just liked running. I think it was sixth grade at North Branch, I came in first and I was surprised. I didn’t know my body could do that. That was the turning point for me.”
Gracy Walker was close behind Kiley with a PR (personal record) of 20:03, while Molly Walker and Flikkie both have PRs within a minute of Kiley, and Van Rijn has run 21:50.
“I think there’s a lot of motivation, with it being a small group, they all realize the role they have to play,” Freeland said. “It’s not a situation of, ‘If I run bad, somebody else will take my spot on the team.’ I was involved in the restart of Kingston cross country. Back in the 80s (1983), our girls program won a state championship for Class D. We’ve been told the story, they had five girls and there was a tie, so that fifth girl won it. Everybody has to contribute if we want to be a success.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Kingston's Gracy Walker (2057) pushes down the stretch during last season's LP Division 4 Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Lilah Kiley (2053) paces a pack at MIS last fall. (Below) Meegan Flikkie (2052) charges toward the finish. (Click for more from Carter Sherline/Run Michigan.)
Rachel Forsyth ♦ Ann Arbor Pioneer
Senior ♦ Cross Country
The latest in a long line of Pioneer distance stars, Forsyth began her final high school cross country season with a nearly 26-second victory in the big-school race at the Benzie Central Pete Moss Invitational on Saturday. She ran a personal-record 17:09.24, which says a ton considering her past work; Forsyth was the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final champion in 2021 as a sophomore and the 2020 runner-up in her first trip to Michigan International Speedway. What's more, she was followed in this Benzie race by reigning Division 3 champion Jessica Jazwinski of Hart in second and last year's Division 4 champion Aiden Harrand of Buckley in third as Pioneer finished second as a team against an elite field.
An injury delayed the start of Forsyth's junior season last fall until the end of September, and she ran only 62nd at the LPD1 Final five weeks later. But she was clearly back to unstoppable during track season, setting personal records in the 3,200, 1,600, 800 and 400 while going undefeated in individual events for the spring and winning LPD1 Finals championships in the 800, 1,600 and as part of the 3,200 relay. She and her siblings have enjoyed an incredible run of success over the last decade; older sister Anne Forsyth was a four-time top-15 cross country finisher at LPD1 Finals and runner-up as a junior in 2016, and sister Sarah Forsyth twice finished among the top 10 individually and as a senior with Rachel in 2021 helped Pioneer to the team title.
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(PHOTOS by Run Michigan.)