Preview: Hart, East Grand Rapids Set to Challenge Records for All-Time Success
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
November 3, 2022
Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Girls Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway will give hundreds of athletes a chance to build on what they’ve accomplished this fall – and allow some of the state’s top programs an opportunity to build on their impressive histories in the sport.
Start with Hart, which has won five straight LP Division 3 championships and can become the first Lower Peninsula team to reach six straight with another title this weekend.
Meanwhile East Grand Rapids, the top-ranked team in LP Division 2, can tie Jackson Lumen Christi’s record of nine Lower Peninsula Finals titles.
Contenders Ann Arbor Pioneer and Grand Rapids Christian are tied for third on that all-time Lower Peninsula championship list with six apiece, followed by Hart with its five. Pioneer has won three in a row, and with a fourth straight would tie for the sixth-longest championship streak in either peninsula.
See below for more on several team and individual contenders Saturday. The "season bests" list referred to frequently is a ranking list of every runner's best time this season, maintained by Athletic.net. The first race begins at 9:30 a.m.; click here for the full schedule and ticket information. Additionally, all eight races Saturday at MIS will be streamed live and viewable with subscription on MHSAA.tv.
Reigning champion: Ann Arbor Pioneer
2021 runner-up: Holland West Ottawa
2022 top-ranked: 1. Saline, 2. Ann Arbor Pioneer, 3. Holland West Ottawa
Pioneer has won three-straight Division 1 championships, last year ahead of West Ottawa 68-100, with Saline running fifth. But as the Pioneers seek a fourth-consecutive win, the competition could be as tough as ever. The Hornets sit in the top spot, seeking their first Finals championship since 2009, after winning last week’s Regional at Milan ahead of Pioneer 33-42. Pioneer did win the Portage Invitational on Oct. 8 with West Ottawa a close second and Saline third, and West Ottawa was the top Michigan placer (second) at the Spartan Invitational Elite race back on Sept. 16. West Ottawa is paced by the two fastest runners in the state this fall – sophomore Helen Sachs (season best 17:01.6) and senior Arianne Olson (17:11.3), who finished fifth and third, respectively, at last year’s Final. Reigning champion and now-junior Rachel Forsyth (season best 18:11.6) returns for Pioneer and is teaming with senior Emily Cooper (17:49.8), who has won three straight races including their league and Regional championship runs. Senior Mia Rogan (18:12.3) paces Saline and was the Regional runner-up last weekend at Milan. All five runners rank among the top 22 on the statewide season best list.
Individuals: Including Forsyth, Olson and Sachs, five of last season’s top seven Finals finishers will return this weekend. Rochester sophomore Lucy Cook is back after running sixth, and Macomb Dakota junior Jayden Harberts returns after running seventh, and both have season-best times among the top 18 statewide. Sachs, Cooper, Cook and Harberts won Regional titles last week, joined by Midland Dow sophomore Victoria Garces, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central junior Clara James-Heer, Ann Arbor Skyline senior Natalie Kessler, Northville junior Ella Christensen and Farmington sophomore Molly Baracco.
Reigning champion: East Grand Rapids
2021 runner-up: Grand Rapids Christian
2022 top-ranked: 1. East Grand Rapids, 2. Otsego, 3. Grand Rapids Christian
East Grand Rapids has been a regular at the front of this pack the last two decades and is the reigning champion after also recently earning titles in 2018 and 2019 and the runner-up spot in 2020. Five of last season’s Finals runners are back and six Pioneers finished among the top 16 at their Regional last week at Grand Rapids South Christian, paced by junior champion Drew Muller. She was fifth at last season’s Final, while sophomore Sadey Seyferth was 12th and junior Sophia Lado finished 15th. Muller ranks fifth on the statewide season best list with a 17:25.3. Otsego is only a few years removed from back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and finished fifth last season with four underclassmen among its top five runners. Three of those four are back this weekend led by junior Megan Germain. Grand Rapids Christian is another team always in the mix, with another runner-up finish coming in 2017 and its most recent championships in 2013 and 2014. Last season’s individual champion Madelyn Frens was a senior, but the next five Eagles runners from 2021 will return this weekend, with junior Natalie VanOtteren coming off a fourth-place Finals finish a year ago and ranking seventh on the season best statewide list this fall with a 17:37.4.
Individuals: Including the three East Grand Rapids returnees and Christian’s VanOtteren, nine of last season’s top 15 finishers will race again this weekend hoping to follow Frens as the individual champion. Mason junior Meghan Ford finished second at the Final as a freshman and third last year, and Frankenmuth junior Mary Richmond was fourth as a freshman and second last season. Richmond has the third-fastest season best time in Division 2 (and 23rd statewide) of 18:12.6. Also returning from last year’s top 15 are Grand Rapids West Michigan Aviation Academy junior Emma DeVries (10th), Zeeland East junior Allison Kuzma (11th) and Marshall junior Camille Decola (14th).
Reigning champion: Hart
2021 runner-up: Kent City
2022 top-ranked: 1. Traverse City St. Francis, 2. Pewamo-Westphalia, 3. Hart
Hart’s championship record pursuit will be led by one of the state’s fastest runners in sophomore Jessica Jazwinski, whose 17:15.1 is the third-fastest season best time statewide this fall. Junior teammate Alyson Ens is not far behind with a 17:49.9 that is tied for 11th-fastest season best time. Ens was runner-up and Jazwinski third at last year’s Final, and three more of their top six runners from that meet also will be back this weekend. But the challenge will be mighty. St. Francis finished third last year without a senior, and six of those seven runners – including the top five – are back led by sophomore Betsy Skendzel, who placed eighth in 2021 and has the 16th-fastest season best time statewide of 18:07.5. P-W finished 10th last season and returns its top six runners from that team. Lansing Catholic was fourth last season with only one senior and brings four runners back including its top three, with senior Hannah Pricco seventh last season, junior Tessa Roe 17th and senior CC Jones 18th. Jones and Pricco’s season-best times this fall rank among the top 27 statewide.
Individuals: Division 3 graduated an impressive class after last season, including three Finals champions. But eight of last season’s top 15 will return this weekend. Joining Enns and Jazwinski, Pricco and Skendzel will be Benzie Central junior Mylie Kelly (sixth in 2021), Ypsilanti Arbor Prep sophomore Eliza Bush (ninth), Jackson Lumen Christi junior Madison Osterberg (12th) and Kent City sophomore Lila Volkers (14th). A newcomer will challenge them as well; Onsted freshman Emmry Ross is undefeated this season, and her top time of 17:47.6 ranks second in Division 3 only to Jazwinski’s season best and ninth on the statewide list. Skendzel, Jazwinski, Volkers, Ross, Pricco and Bush won Regional titles last weekend, as did Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett sophomore Kerith Short, Reese senior Ellymae McCoy and Lawton junior Kendra Koster. Muskegon Western Michigan Christian sophomore Grace VanderKooi and Kalamazoo Christian sophomore Alaina Klooster were placers in Division 4 last season, crossing the line eighth and 15th, respectively, in that race.
Reigning champion: Muskegon Western Michigan Christian
2021 runner-up: Kalamazoo Christian
2022 top-ranked: 1. Johannesburg-Lewiston, 2. Whitmore Lake, 3. Harbor Springs
Western Michigan Christian became the third-straight first-time Finals champion in Division 4 last fall, and Johannesburg-Lewiston would run that streak to four if it matches its ranking. The Cardinals finished sixth a year ago with only one senior and bring back their top five runners from that meet, including senior Adelaida Gascho, who finished fourth individually last fall. Johannesburg-Lewiston finished second at last weekend’s East Jordan Regional to Harbor Springs, but sophomore Allie Novak and freshman Yolanda Gascho were the top two individual placers. Whitmore Lake is seeking its first team title since 1996 and bringing back four of its top six runners from last year’s ninth-place team – including 13th-place now-junior Natalie Meadows – plus standout freshman Carina Burchi, whose 17:42.5 is the second-fastest time on the Division 4 season best list. Harbor Springs was 12th in Division 3 a year ago and brings three of its runners back this weekend, and placed four among the top seven individuals in that Regional win over Johannesburg-Lewiston. Harbor Springs is seeking its first Finals team title since 2009.
Individuals: Four-time Finals champion Abby VanderKooi graduated this spring, but Buckley junior Aiden Harrand is another big star from a small school. She was fifth as a freshman and runner-up last season, and her season-best time of 18:11 ranks 20th on the statewide list. She’s one of 10 runners back from last season’s Division 4 top 15 (not including the two who are running in Division 3 this weekend). Joining Harrand, Gascho and Meadows are Huron Valley Lutheran senior Erika Van Loton (fifth in 2021), Mendon sophomore Presley Allen (sixth), Auburn Hills Oakland Christian sophomore Eliza Keith (ninth), Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest senior Mackenzie Lemke (10th), Allen Park Cabrini junior Ava Teed (11th), Pittsford sophomore Ava Mallar (12th) and Wyoming Potter’s House Christian junior Ivy Andreas (14th). Joining Nowak among Regional champs were Harrand, Allen, Burchi and Teed, as well as Genesee junior Isabella Yeoman, Adrian Lenawee Christian sophomore Izzy Brooks, Hudsonville Libertas Christian freshman Sadie Schout and Beal City senior Kaylee Locke.
PHOTO Hart's Alyson Enns (255) and Jessica Jazwinski kick toward the finish of last season's Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)
Kent City's Evers Selected for NFHS National 'Coach of the Year' Honor
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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 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.