By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Breckenridge High School has a mere 244 students. But one could finish this weekend's MHSAA Finals among an elite few in state girls cross country history.
Three-time champion Kirsten Olling already is one of the all-time greats. But if she can win one more title, she’ll become just the seventh to claim four – and first in the Lower Peninsula since Rochester Adams’ Katie Boyles finished her surge in 2000.
Here's a look at the contenders to watch from all four divisions. For those who can’t make the trip to Brooklyn, MHSAA.TV will provide camera views at the start and finish lines and two more points on the course, with audio from reporters stationed along the way. Cost is $9.95 for Saturday only, which also includes access to all four Lower Peninsula Boys Soccer Finals, or $14.95 for a month pass that will allow fans to also watch live the Volleyball Semifinals and Finals and Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals.
Click for Saturday's race schedule and links to all qualifiers and the live streams.
Reigning champion: Birmingham Seaholm
2012 runner-up: Grosse Pointe South
2013 top three: 1. Northville, 2. Birmingham Seaholm, 3 Saline.
Reigning champ Seaholm and 2011 champ Grosse Pointe South both graduated star sets of sisters who played big parts in the programs’ successes over the last few seasons – although South does return eighth-place individual finisher Ersula Farrow. Northville, meanwhile, is the favorite returning five from last season’s fifth-place team, and Saline brings back five from the team that finished third including sixth-place Elianna Shwayder. All four of these teams won their Regionals in dominating fashion.
Individuals: Gone are graduated stars Erin Finn of West Bloomfield and Hannah Meier of Grosse Pointe South, along with the rest of the top five from last season. Three more of the top 11 also are back, however: Rochester senior Jessica Goethals, Hudsonville senior Alex Berends and Salem senior Kayla Kavulich. Add into the mix Seaholm junior Audrey Belf, who won her Regional by more than a minute in 17:41, plus Grandville sophomore Valerie Wierenga (17:55.7) and Jenison senior Ellie Leonard (17:58.5) – first and second, respectively, at their Regional.
Reigning champion: Ada Forest Hills Eastern
2012 runner-up: Spring Lake
2013 top three: 1. Grand Rapids Christian, 2. Spring Lake, 3. Warren Regina.
Rarely does a team lose one of the top runners in MHSAA history (graduate Julia Bos) and come back the next season expected to improve from third place to first. But the Eagles return their second-fourth and sixth-fastest runners from last season’s Final and have been ranked No. 1 all fall. Spring Lake, with five of its top six back from last season’s runner-up team including 15th-place Carlyn Arteaga, has been figuratively only a step behind. Warren Regina finished ninth last season without a senior scoring, and its top five all are back this weekend including Regional champ and senior Cassie Bloch.
Individuals: Twelve of last season’s top 20 were juniors or younger, and this year’s group is incredibly strong. Cedar Springs junior Kenzie Weiler – last season’s runner-up and one of the top runners regardless of division throughout her three-year career – won her Regional in 18:51.56 ahead of Remus Chippewa Hills senior Megan O’Neil, who finished seventh at the 2012 Final. Hudsonville Unity Christian junior Kelli Nesky finished fifth last season and won her Regional in 18:47.62 – just a second ahead of Hamilton freshman Erika Freyhof. Mason sophomore Meg Darmofal is coming off an eighth-place finish last season and won her Regional in 18:16.9, and Charlotte sophomore Lindsey Carlson was 10th last season. Detroit Country Day junior Jackie Bredenberg won her Regional by a minute in 17:51. Others to watch include Battle Creek Pennfield senior Audrianna Bornamann, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern junior Morgan Posthuma, St. Johns junior Karrigan Smith, Grand Rapids South Christian junior Alexis Miller, Otsego freshman Megan Aalberts and Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood junior Claire Ford. All cleared 19 minutes at their Regionals. Essexville-Garber junior Julia Jeczmionka finished sixth in Division 3 last season.
Reigning champion: Jackson Lumen Christi
2012 runner-up: Grandville Calvin Christian
2013 top three: 1. Shepherd, 2. Macomb Lutheran North, 3. Benzie Central.
Reigning individual champion: Gina Patterson, Macomb Lutheran North.
Shepherd often is in the conversation but is the favorite this time as it pursues its first MHSAA team title since 1994. Three of the Bluejays’ top four are back from last season’s ninth-place team including individual seventh-place finisher Kaylie Rhynard, a senior who won her Regional in 18:57.7. She and her teammates could be chasing Macomb Lutheran North junior Gina Patterson, last season’s individual champion as the team finished seventh; total, the top four from that lineup are back this weekend. Benzie Central, the 2011 team champ, also returns its top four from last season’s third-place team including last season’s 10th-place finisher, senior Alyssa Bennett.
Individuals: Only four of last season’s top 25 graduated. Three more sophomores joined Patterson in rounding out the top five last season, and Manistee’s Annie Fuller, Charlevoix’s Amber Way and Holland Black River’s Allison Vroon are all back after placing third-fifth, respectively, as is Ida junior Ashley Sorge, who finished eighth. Way (19:06.4) won her Regional ahead of Fuller and Bennett, and Sorge (18:23.6) and Patterson (18:11) also were Regional champions. Others of note are Clare Freshman Jasmine Harper, a Regional champion in 18:47.4; Kent City senior Ashley Russo, who finished ahead of Vroon in 18:18.62 at their Regional; and Frankenmuth senior Emily Sievert, who also broke 19 minutes in winning hers.
Reigning champion: Homer
2012 runner-up: Bear Lake
2013 top three: 1. Homer, 2. Pewamo-Westphalia, 3. Breckenridge.
Reigning individual champion: Kirsten Olling, Breckenridge.
Homer returns its top four and five of last season’s championship seven this weekend. Senior Amanda Reagle was the individual Regional champ in 19:20 and she and now-juniors Jessica Reagle and Bailey Manis all finished among the top 23 at the 2012 Final (when Jessica Reagle placed ninth). Pewamo-Westphalia finished 15th last season, but did so without a senior and brings back five of its top six. Breckenridge didn’t make the Finals as a team when Kirsten Olling was a freshman and have finished seventh and then 10th the last two seasons, respectively. But she leads a team that could push the favorites with its top four and seventh runners from 2012 all back.
Individuals: Only one senior placed among the top 10 last season, and only two placed among the top 20. Olling won her Regional by nearly two minutes in 17:39.8, but 2012 runner-up Holly Bullough also is back and won her Regional title, as did 2012 third-place Tenna Fornari of Waterford Our Lady and sixth-place Lauren Jenkins of Saugatuck. Last season placers Taylor Smith of Blanchard Montabella (fourth), Kendra Colesa of Deckerville (fifth) and Hannah Steffke of Beal City (eighth) also return to the mix.
PHOTO: Breckenridge’s Kirsten Olling runs the final paces on the way to her third MHSAA Lower Peninsula cross country title last season at Michigan International Speedway. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)
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.