By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Over the course of Saturday, 986 runners will take part in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Girls Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway – and with a number of contenders facing new championship scenarios and first-time title opportunities.
While last season’s races saw three repeat team champions, only two-time reigning Division 4 winner Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart is predicted to make it three titles in a row. At the same time, some shifting in divisions this fall has led to a few faces in new places, including the favorite in Division 2.
Below are some of the teams to watch and a glance at each of the individual fields as well. The first race of the day – Division 4 girls – starts at 9:30 a.m. Click for all Finals qualifiers, a map of the course and links to buy tickets and watch the Finish Line camera on MHSAA.tv, and come back to Second Half later Saturday for coverage of all four meets.
Reigning champion: Highland-Milford
2016 runner-up: Ann Arbor Pioneer
2017 top-ranked: 1. Rockford, 2. Northville, 3. Troy.
Rockford, Northville and Pioneer in some combination have been considered the favorites most of this season, but Troy moved into the top three for this week’s final ranking. Rockford has five of its top six from last year’s 14th-place team and placed five of the top seven to win a Regional last week that included No. 9 East Grand Rapids and honorable mention Grand Haven. Northville will return to MIS with two of its top three finishers and three from the seven overall that took third place last year; the Mustangs placed the top three in winning their Regional against a field that included No. 13 Salem. Troy was eighth at last season’s Final without a senior and has four runners back this weekend including three seniors. The Colts placed five of the top seven to win a Regional that included reigning Finals champ and No. 8-ranked Seaholm. Pioneer is paced by reigning individual runner-up and now-senior Anne Forsyth, along with three others from last year’s second-place team, and just edged No. 14 Saline to win its Regional.
Individuals: Forsyth is the highest returning placer from last year as champion Maggie Farrell from Battle Creek Lakeview graduated along with two more from the 2016 top 10. Macomb L’Anse Creuse North senior Karenna Duffey finished third both last season and as a freshman and had the fifth-fastest Regional time in the state last weekend behind Traverse City Central senior Sielle Kearney and Rockford junior Ericka VanderLende. Forysth and Kearney (seventh last season) both broke 17 minutes at the Benzie Central Invitational at the end of August, and Saline senior Jessi Larson outpaced Forsyth at their Regional. Also returning from last year’s top 10 are West Bloomfield junior Kyla Christopher-Moody, Grandville junior Madison Malon and Waterford Mott junior Rylee Robinson, while St. Joseph senior Anna Joseph was second in Division 2 a year ago. Robinson joined Kearney, Larson, Duffey and VanderLende as individual Regional champions last week, along with Troy senior Megan Worrel, Northville senior Ana Barrott, East Lansing freshman Abbie Draheim and Portage Northern junior Peyton Witt.
Reigning champion: Otsego
2016 runner-up: East Grand Rapids
2017 top-ranked: 1. Lansing Catholic, 2 DeWitt, 3. Grand Rapids Christian.
Lansing Catholic, last season’s Division 3 runner-up, has shown among the best in Division 2 all fall with a lineup including last year’s top five runners and top-five D3 Finals finishers Olivia Theis (second), Lauren Cleary (third) and Jaden Theis (sixth). Right with the Cougars has been DeWitt, which finished ninth in Division 2 last year and has its top four from that team returning to MIS this weekend. The Cougars and Panthers ran at the same Regional on Saturday with Lansing Catholic winning by a 71-77 edge and the teams combining to place five of the top eight even though Jaden Theis didn’t run (and with No. 12 Mason and honorable mention Ada Forest Hills Eastern among others in the field). Grand Rapids Christian finished third at the Final last season and has four runners back from that team, and is coming off a Regional win against a field including No. 7 Allendale and No. 11 Spring Lake.
Individuals: Reigning champion Kayla Windemuller has won all of her races but one this fall, finishing second to Olivia Theis at the Portage Invitational a month ago. The Holland Christian senior won her Regional last week by a minute. Plainwell sophomore Makenna Veen (fourth), Goodrich junior Jillian Lange (seventh), Mason junior Cecilia Stalzer (eighth) and St. Johns sophomore Taryn Chapko (10th) also are back after posting top-10 finishes in 2016, Veen and Lange coming off Regional titles and Stalzer finished second at her Regional to Theis. Big Rapids junior Meghan Langworthy, Grand Rapids Christian freshman Carly Michele, Flint Powers Catholic senior Paige Deitering, Marysville junior Megan McCulloch and Monroe Jefferson senior Kaitlyn St. Bernard also won Regional titles last week.
Reigning champion: Traverse City St. Francis
2016 runner-up: Lansing Catholic
2017 top-ranked: 1. Hart, 2. Benzie Central, 3. Saugatuck.
St. Francis has won the last two Division 3 titles but is ranked only No. 7 heading into this weekend, although the Gladiators do bring back five of their top six from a year ago. Hart was seventh at the 2016 Final but is paced by reigning champion and now-junior Adelyn Ackley plus seventh-place senior sister Alayna Ackley and standout freshmen Savannah and Lynae Ackley (Savannah is another sister to Adelyn and Alayna and Lynae is their cousin). Benzie Central and Saugatuck finished third and fourth, respectively, last year; both teams are returning five of their top six runners from those finishes. Saugatuck won its Regional and Benzie finished second to Hart and ahead of No. 6 Clare last weekend.
Individuals: With the Lansing Catholic leaders running in Division 2 this season, only five more top-10 Division 3 placers are back to join the oldest Ackleys at MIS – McBain junior Klaudia O’Malley (fourth), Shepherd junior Amber Gall (fifth), Traverse City St. Francis senior Joyana Tarsa (eighth) and Montrose senior Remington Hobson (10th). O’Malley finished second to Adelyn Hart at their Regional and Gall and Hobson took the top two spots, respectively, at theirs, but a number of others could move into the mix at the front this weekend. Bad Axe junior Jelena Prescott, Blissfield senior Casey Reed, New Lothrop senior Courtney Krupp, Hanover-Horton junior Judy Rector, Saugatuck junior Thea Johnson, Kent City junior Lauren Freeland and Charlevoix senior Michelle Bollini also won Division 3 Regional titles. Pewamo-Westphalia sophomore Aubrey George finished sixth in Division 4 last season as her team finished second, and the Pirates are in Division 3 this weekend. Harbor Springs and Division 4 eighth-placer Alyssa Kihnke also moved to Division 3 this season; Kihnke is a senior.
Reigning champion: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
2016 runner-up: Pewamo-Westphalia
2017 top-ranked: 1. Sacred Heart, 2. Lansing Christian, 3. Breckenridge.
Two-time reigning champion Sacred Heart might have been the easiest team to forecast this fall and comes back to MIS with five of last year’s runners back plus a sixth who was a top contributor before missing most of last season with an injury. The Irish placed the top five at last week’s Regional and six of the top seven. Lansing Christian has rushed into the elite after not sending anyone to last year’s Final; the Pilgrims, led by freshmen Madison Volz, Lexi Kinnas and Natalie Tebben, won their Regional last week ahead of No. 4 Fowler and No. 10 Plymouth Christian Academy. Breckenridge is looking to move up from fourth last year with five of their top seven back from the 2016 Final although the Huskies did come in second at their Regional last weekend to No. 7 Ubly.
Individuals: In addition to reigning runner-up and current senior Bailley McConnell from Sacred Heart, only Concord senior Samantha Saenz (third) and Kalamazoo Hackett senior Mary Ankenbauer (10th) will join her from last year’s top 10. Saenz and Ankenbauer both were Regional champs last week, and McConnell finished just behind junior teammate Scout Nelson. Lake Leelanau St. Mary senior Hanna Grant broke 19 minutes in winning her Regional by almost 50 seconds, while Rogers City freshman Morgan Baller, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian junior Josie Aardema, Pittsford junior Renee Osborne, Ubly junior Haili Gusa and Waterford Our Lady senior Olivia Hankey also were Regional winners.
PHOTO: Traverse City Central's Sielle Kearney, left, and Ann Arbor Pioneer's Anne Forsyth round a curve during the Spartan Invitational "elite" race earlier this fall. (Click for more from 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.)