By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Make way for historic finishes at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Girls Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway.
Two of four team favorites have never won before. A third hasn’t won in more than two decades. There will be at least two new individual champions. And two others will attempt to continue impressive reigns.
A total of 985 runners will take to the course at MIS on Saturday for the four girls races, which begin with Division 4 at 9:30 a.m. Below are some of the teams to watch and a glance at each of the individual fields. Click for all Finals qualifiers, a map of the course and links to buy tickets and watch the live broadcast on MHSAA.tv, and come back to Second Half later Saturday for coverage of all four meets.
Reigning champion: Clarkston
2018 runner-up: Ann Arbor Pioneer
2019 top-ranked: 1. Ann Arbor Pioneer, 2. Traverse City Central, 3. Northville
Pioneer has finished Division 1 runner-up two of the last three seasons, and if rankings hold true will win its first championship since 1997. The Pioneers placed four among the top 52 last season, and all four return led by senior Zofia Dudek. She’s undefeated this fall after finishing third at the Final a year ago, and her personal record (PR) of 16:46.9 is 15 seconds faster than anyone else has run statewide in any division this season. Traverse City Central junior Julia Flynn has the fifth-fastest time in the state (17:26) after placing 10th at last year’s Final, and she’s one of six runners back from the Trojans team that came in fourth in 2018. Northville was eighth last year and brings four runners from that lineup back to MIS, with junior Emily Gordon the top returning placer after coming in 30th.
Individuals: Two-time champion Ericka VanderLende clinched her second title by 50 seconds a year ago. But despite her graduation, this will again be a strong field with Dudek leading 10 returning runners from last year’s top 20. Also back from the top 10 are Lake Orion junior Sophie Novak (fifth), Bay City Western senior Ashlyn Nagel (sixth) and Flynn, and Birmingham Seaholm junior Audrey DaDamio placed 11th and has the state’s third-fastest time this fall of 17:12. Holland West Ottawa freshman Arianne Olson and Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills junior Madison Ebright also should be in the mix; they posted the sixth and 10th fastest times, respectively, in the state this fall at their Regionals.
Reigning champion: East Grand Rapids
2018 runner-up: DeWitt
2019 top-ranked: 1. Petoskey, 2. East Grand Rapids, 3. Ada Forest Hills Eastern
Petoskey approached a perfect score at its Regional last week and is running for its first MHSAA Finals championship in this sport after coming in third a year ago. The team’s five scoring runners from that race all are back, and only one is a senior. Junior Emma Squires was seventh in 2018, and junior Cambrie Smith was the league and Regional champ last month after placing 84th at the Final a year ago while competing for Gaylord. East Grand Rapids hardly can be overlooked after winning last year’s title with only one senior. Five of the top six from the title team will run again Saturday, including four who finished among the top 20 individually – senior Margaret Coney (sixth), sophomore Ainsley Workman (11th), senior Katie Hessler (15th) and senior Anna Petr (20th). Forest Hills Eastern is running for its first championship since 2012 with three runners back from the team that placed 11th in 2018. Senior Landyn Howell (46th) is the top returning placer from that lineup.
Individuals: No other race this weekend will have as many familiar faces. Only three seniors graduated from last year’s top 20, and the top 11 all are back in the field. Lansing Catholic senior Jaden Theis won last season’s championship by 15 seconds and has posted the fourth-fastest time in the state this season (17:20.2). Plainwell senior Mackenna Veen came in second in 2018 and has three top-five Finals finishes to her credit, while St. Johns senior Taryn Chapko was third last year and has finished at least 11th all three years of high school. Cadillac sophomore Kendall Schopieray (fourth), Grand Rapids Christian sophomore Madelyn Frens (sixth), Holland Christian seniors Gillian Fiene (eighth) and Michelle Kuipers (ninth) and Allendale senior Sophie DiPiazza (10th) also are back from last year’s top 10.
Reigning champion: Hart
2018 runner-up: Grandville Calvin Christian
2019 top-ranked: 1. Hart, 2. Benzie Central, 3. Grandville Calvin Christian
Hart won last year’s championship by 100 points and is seeking its third straight title after graduating only one from that lineup – although that one was three-time individual Finals winner Adelyn Ackley. But the team’s next five runners from 2018 all are back: junior Savannah Ackley (seventh place), sophomore Audrienna Enns (10th), juniors Lynae Ackley (13th) and MacKenzie Stitt (14th) and senior Brenna Aerts (24th). Benzie is looking to make a jump from eighth last year after graduating only one runner and with five returning, led by junior Cierra Guay (37th individually). Calvin Christian graduated its two highest finishers from last year’s runner-up team but returns the other five with senior Olivia Quillan (21st) the top returning placer.
Individuals: A strong senior class last year took the top five places, leaving four of the top 10 – but 12 of the top 20 – to return this weekend. They’ll be joined by a few additions who should make for an interesting finish. Ithaca sophomore Lani Bloom (sixth) is the top returning placer, and with St. Louis sophomore Libby Munderloh (eighth) joins Savannah Ackley and Enns as those back from the top 10. Now the newcomers: Roscommon sophomore Allison Chmielewski was undefeated until her Regional and has the fastest time in Division 3 this fall by 41 seconds (17:31.1). Richmond senior Maddy Bean has won all but one race this season and has the third-fastest Division 3 time (18:24.4) after placing 78th in Division 2 a year ago. And Boyne City freshman Ava Maginity has the fifth-fastest time in Division 3 (18:33.3), which she ran in earning her Regional title.
Reigning champion: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
2018 runner-up: Saugatuck
2019 top-ranked: 1. Bridgman, 2. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, 3. Hillsdale Academy.
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart has won four straight Division 4 championships, with four different schools finishing runner-up during that time. But the rankings call for Bridgman to unseat the Irish. The Bees return four from last year’s 15th-place team, led by junior Karyn Stewart (24th individually). They finished ahead of Sacred Heart at the prestigious Portage Invitational and scored just 35 points to win their Regional. Sacred Heart, however, does return three of last year’s top seven, including high placer Desiree McConnell (sixth), now a senior. Freshman Olivia Ervin actually has the team’s fastest time this fall (19:37.7), which ranks ninth in Division 4. And don’t forget about Hillsdale Academy, which finished fourth last year without a senior. Five of the team’s top seven runners return including last year’s three highest placers, led by freshman Megan Roberts, who crossed the line 27th as an eighth grader.
Individuals: Muskegon Western Michigan Christian sophomore Abby VanderKooi made her Finals debut last season running a 17:47.3, the second-fastest 5K time in Division 4 history and 1:15 faster than the field. Her 17:02.7 at Portage is the second-fastest time in the state this fall, regardless of division. Lansing Christian junior Madison Volz and Royal Oak Shrine senior Ellie Kendall finished second and third last season, respectively, and have the third and second-fastest times in Division 4 this year. Marlette senior Riley Ford was fifth last year and has this year’s fourth-fastest time. Four more from last year’s top 20 also are back in the field, and three of the top nine times in Division 4 this fall have been run by freshmen.
PHOTO: Roscommon’s Allison Chmielewski leads the field on the way to winning the Warrior Invitational at Remus Chippewa Hills in August. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)