By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — The level of competition made its first MHSAA cross country championship even sweeter for Birmingham Seaholm.
Seaholm, Grosse Pointe South and Saline took turns beating each other this season, setting up a three-way showdown for the Lower Peninsula Division 1 girls cross country title Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
In the end, it wasn’t as close as expected. Even with a sub-par day by its No. 1 runner, top-ranked Seaholm won by a 69-88 margin over third-ranked Grosse Pointe South, the defending champion. No. 2-ranked Saline was third with 101.
Seaholm was fourth in Division 1 last year, its best finish before Saturday. The Maples had been in the top 10 only twice before posting top-nine finishes three of the last four years.
“It’s indescribable,” Seaholm coach Jeff Devantier said. “It’s fantastic. It’s just a lot of hard work that’s finally paid off.
“That’s what makes it even better, knowing the competition around you is as tough as it is. But that was our focus all year. We knew this team and this team — Saline and Grosse Pointe South — were the teams we had to compare ourselves to and had to continually improve to beat. It came together today.”
Seniors Aubrey and Tess Wilberding — two of three triplets — led Seaholm. Aubrey was fourth overall in 17:55.9, while Tess took 12th in 18:16.4.
Rounding out Seaholm’s scoring were freshman Marissa Dobry (15th, 18:23.9), sophomore Rachel Dadamio (20th, 18:27.9) and sophomore Audrey Belf (33rd, 18:32.8).
“The scary thing about this lineup is that we haven’t had the same girls finish in the same order all year,” Devantier said. “My top girl actually did not have the kind of day she wanted to. We wanted to have as many girls in the top 30 to 35 as we could.”
Individually, West Bloomfield senior Erin Finn repeated as champion with the fastest time in all four divisions, a personal-best 17:07.9. Grosse Pointe South senior Hannah Meier set a fast early pace before taking second in 17:34.5.
Finn’s time was the fourth-best ever in an MHSAA meet. She has three of the top 15 times ever run at MIS, more than any other runner.
“I’m definitely getting back there,” Finn said. “God has blessed me. I don’t think I ever prayed so much before a race.”
Less than a month ago, Finn wasn’t sure if she would be able to defend her championship, let alone run that fast.
She trained harder than ever over the summer, had a good race in the season opener, but then saw her times get slower and slower. Finn was eventually diagnosed with an iron deficiency, which she’s been able to correct primarily with supplements.
Once the problem was identified, Finn set her sights on being strong at the end of the season.
“I told myself the Spartan Invitational doesn’t matter, the Regional doesn’t matter as long as I qualify,” Finn said. “All that matters is state, regionals and nationals. Hey, I think I’m back for those. That’s all that counts.”
Meier, the MHSAA Finals record holder in the 800 and 1,600, held the lead until about one kilometer into the five-kilometer race.
“She just really bolted the first two miles,” Meier said of Finn. “I saw her slowing down the last mile. I wasn’t thinking about individually; I was thinking about team. I just wasn’t feeling it today. I think I could’ve done better but, oh, well.”
PHOTO: Birmingham Seaholm senior Aubrey Wilberding crosses the finish line first for her team, in 17:55.9, as the Maples went on to win the Division 1 team championship at MIS. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.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.)