Preview: Challengers Chase History

November 1, 2019

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, and come back to Second Half later Saturday for coverage of all four meets.

Division 1

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.

Division 2

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.

Division 3

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.

Division 4

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

Kent City's Evers Selected for NFHS National 'Coach of the Year' Honor

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

January 11, 2023

Kent City cross country coach Jill Evers has been named the 2021-22 National Coach of the Year for girls cross country by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association.

Evers was selected by a committee including representatives from all eight NFHS sections – Michigan is part of Section 4 with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The following brief bio includes an excerpt from Evers’ coaching philosophy, which nominees were asked to submit after being identified as candidates for the awards.

Jill EversJill Evers joined the Kent City athletic staff as an assistant cross country coach in 1991 after previously coaching a season each at Allegan High School and Allegan Middle School. She took over Kent City’s girls and boys varsity cross country programs in 1993 and also has served as head girls track & field coach since 1993. She led Kent City’s girls cross country team to a Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final runner-up finish in 2021, the program’s second runner-up finish under her leadership, and she’s also guided Kent City’s girls program to 15 league and seven Regional titles and nine total top-eight Finals finishes. She previously was named an NFHS Section Coach of the Year for girls track & field in 2006 after leading Kent City’s girls track & field team to its first MHSAA Finals championship in that sport, and inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012. Evers also is a longtime science teacher at Kent City and advisor and mentor for a variety of school activities in addition to coaching.

“I know people say, ‘Athletics is an extension of the classroom,’ but I believe it's so much more than that. While participating in sports, young people can learn about themselves and others, challenge themselves and grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Athletics is where we learn life lessons, such as how to lose with grace, cheer for teammates and even opponents, win with humility, deal with adversity, empathize with others, respect all those involved, be grateful for healthy bodies and opportunities to compete and push ourselves beyond what was originally thought possible. Success is different for each person, but I believe cross country lends itself to individual success. Everyone can improve and learn lifelong healthy habits. Everyone can set and achieve goals. Those who aren't as fast often earn the respect of the more gifted runners because of their perseverance. It is my job as a coach to encourage, motivate, and challenge all students who want to participate, and then congratulate them for a job well done.”

Three more Michigan coaches earned honors in Section 4. Mark Posey was honored in boys golf after leading Big Rapids to a 10th-place finish in Lower Peninsula Division 3 in 2022 after four straight Finals runner-up finishes. (There was no LP boys golf season in 2020 due to COVID-19.) Lake Orion boys lacrosse coach Ronald Hebert was honored after guiding his team to the Division 1 Quarterfinals last spring after taking the Dragons to the Semifinals in 2021. Scott Werner was honored in girls track & field after leading Pewamo-Westphalia to a runner-up finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals. P-W shared the LPD3 Finals championship in 2021 and has won titles four of the last nine seasons (not counting 2020).

The NFHS has been recognizing coaches through an awards program since 1982.