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.)
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.)