BROOKLYN – How strong of a cross country conference is the Ottawa-Kent Conference White?
So good that Drew Muller of East Grand Rapids didn’t even win the two conference jamborees she raced this season.
Yet, she was first when it mattered the most, winning the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 championship Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
Muller crossed the finish line in 18:18.47 to win by 9.36 seconds over Otsego freshman Emma Hoffman.
The winner of all three O-K White jamborees was Grand Rapids Christian junior Natalie VanOtteren, who was fourth in 17:55.3. Six of the top 10 runners were from the Grand Rapids area.
“It’s been like this a lot during the season,” Muller said. “All the teams we race against in our conference are so stacked. Everyone who runs there is so amazing, so it makes it fun.
“It helps so much. Everyone we race against are such good friends. It makes it even more fun. It makes you love the sport even more.”
Muller ran with some familiar faces much of the race before making a break entering the track with one kilometer remaining.
“I was feeling pretty fatigued, but I found my group I run with a lot and we stuck with it together and kind of powered through,” she said. “In the back stretch, I took a chance and went at the 1K, which I’ve been doing in a couple meets before this. It’s worked pretty well. I was pretty fatigued, but it’s good, good to be done.”
Muller’s first words with reporters after the race were, “That hurt a lot.”
Muller became an MHSAA champion after finishing fifth in Division 2 both of the last two years. She applied lessons learned from her first two trips around the MIS course to put it all together Saturday.
“My past races were pretty rough,” she said. “It was definitely a learning experience.
“Definitely in the past, I’ve gone out a little bit faster as we entered the stadium. I feel there’s so much energy, it’s kind of hard not to. A lot of people I race also go out really fast, so I try to go with them. That didn’t really help in the past. This year, I feel like I have more endurance to keep up and have a good kick.”
The only title that eluded Muller was the team championship, something East Grand Rapids captured last year and three of the last four seasons.
Instead, it was Otsego that returned to the top for the first time since winning back-to-back championships in 2015 and 2016.
The Bulldogs scored 87 points to beat East Grand Rapids by 11. Grand Rapids Christian was third with 153.
Otsego put four runners in the top 14. Hoffman was second in 18:27.83, junior Logan Brazee was seventh in 18:42.95, junior Megan Germain was eighth in 18:47.56 and sophomore Taylor Mitchell was 14th in 18:57.08. No. 5 runner Rebekah Stachura crossed in 86th place in 20:12.64 to complete the team score.
East Grand Rapids had three runners in the top 15, then got a 39th and a 55th from its other two scoring runners.
PHOTOS (Top) East Grand Rapids’ Drew Muller charges toward the finish line during the LPD2 Final. (Middle) Otsego’s Emma Hoffman, left, and Frankenmuth’s Mary Richmond follow Muller down the stretch to finish second and third, respectively. (Click for more from Dave McCauley/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.)