By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Michigan International Speedway will showcase Saturday the last MHSAA Finals for a pair of the most successful champions all-time in this state.
Hart’s Adelyn Ackley will run for her third individual championship while attempting to lead her team to a repeat in Lower Peninsula Division 3. Rockford’s Ericka VanderLende won last season’s Division 1 individual title with one of the fastest 5K times in Finals history, and she enters this weekend with the state’s fastest time this fall.
A total of 958 runners will take to the course at MIS for the girls races, which begin with Division 4 at 10:50 a.m. – the boys start the day with their Division 4 at 9:30. Below are some of the teams to watch and a glance at each of the individual fields as well. 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. (NOTE: “Rankings” of individual runners below are based on data at Athletic.net, which orders runners based on the single fastest times they’ve run this season.)
Reigning champion: Troy
2017 runner-up: Northville
2018 top-ranked: 1. Northville, 2. Clarkston, 3. Ann Arbor Pioneer.
Troy held off Northville by five points to claim last season’s championship, but the Mustangs have six of their seven runners back including sophomore Yasmine Mansi (ninth in 2017) and senior Nicole Cybul (18th). Those two rank ninth and 11th, respectively, among runners regardless of division this fall. All five scorers are back from the Clarkston team that finished eighth a year ago, and Ann Arbor Pioneer brings back four of its top six from the team that finished fourth. Junior Zofia Dudek placed 20th individually for the Pioneers last fall, and freshman Sarah Forsyth ranks 16th regardless of division among this season’s best.
Individuals: Rockford’s VanderLende owns the state’s fastest time this fall by 14 seconds after winning her Regional in 16:43.3. But the returning crew accompanying her is also strong. Waterford Mott senior Rylee Robinson (third), West Bloomfield senior Kyla Christopher-Moody (fourth), Grand Haven senior Gabby Hentemann (eighth) and White Lake Lakeland senior Madeline Rehm (10th) joined VanderLende and Mansi in the top 10 in 2017. Farmington senior Abby Inch (11th), Highland Milford senior Victoria Heiligenthal (12th), Fenton junior Alexa Keiser (13th), Portage Northern senior Peyton Witt (16th), Midland Dow senior Anastasia Tucker (17th) and Romeo junior Madelyn Malczewski (19th) make it 14 of last year’s top 20 coming back to MIS.
Reigning champion: Lansing Catholic
2017 runner-up: Grand Rapids Christian
2018 top-ranked: 1. East Grand Rapids, 2. Petoskey, 3. DeWitt.
East Grand Rapids has finished runner-up twice (2015 and 2016) since last winning the championship in 2011, and is back in Division 2 after placing 13th in Division 1 last fall. The top three finishers from that team return, and six runners rank among the top 29 in Division 2. Petoskey finished 19th last season but without a senior; five returnees are joined by two freshmen, and sophomore Emma Squires ranks seventh in the division. DeWitt has three runners ranked among the top 35 and returns four from the team that finished third last season, led by senior Ashley Shipps (13th individually in 2017).
Individuals: Division 2 graduated two of the state’s top runners this decade this spring, and the field still is loaded. Lansing Catholic’s Jaden Theis (sixth in 2017) and Lauren Cleary (third) have broken 18 minutes, Theis’ 17:07.3 on Sept. 29 ranking her fourth regardless of division as she looks to follow up her sister Olivia’s individual title last season. Mason also has two returning top-20 finishers – runner-up and now-senior Cecilia Stalzer and junior Lucy Petee (20th), while Plainwell junior Makenna Veen (fifth), Goodrich senior Jillian Lange (seventh) and Big Rapids senior Meghan Langworthy (10th) also are back from the top 10. St. Johns junior Taryn Chapko (11th), Wayland junior Rylee Cronkright (12th), Pontiac Notre Dame Prep junior Jennifer Ohlsson (14th) and Paw Paw senior Molly Thompson (18th), along with DeWitt’s Shipps, give the division 12 returning top-20 placers from a year ago.
Reigning champion: Hart
2017 runner-up: Benzie Central
2018 top-ranked: 1. Hart, 2. Grandville Calvin Christian, 3. Clare.
Hart has ranked among the top teams in the state regardless of division the last two seasons, keyed in part by a number of members of the Ackley family. Adelyn Ackley will attempt to become the 26th three-time girls Finals champion, and her top time of 17:00.6 ranks her third in the state regardless of division. Total, five of Hart’s top six from last season are back including as well sophomores Savannah Ackley (sixth place individually) and cousin Lynae Ackley (20th). Calvin Christian is seeking its first championship in this sport after finishing third a year ago, and returns four of the top five runners from that team. Clare was fifth last season without a senior; senior Lainey Veenkant (12th individually) leads five returnees and two freshmen heading to MIS.
Individuals: Juniors took the top five places last season; the fifth-place runner is in Division 4 this fall, but Ackley will again be part of a chase with Shepherd senior Amber Gall (second), Kent City senior Lauren Freeland (third) and McBain senior Klaudia O’Malley (fourth). North Muskegon junior Isabella Lindsay (eighth) and Hanover-Horton senior Judy Rector (10th) also are back from the top 10. Rounding out returnees from the top 20 are Bad Axe junior Jelena Prescott (13th), Manton junior Paige Swiriduk (15th), Benzie Central junior Paige Johnston (17th) and Traverse City St. Francis senior Katelyn Duffing (19th) – making for 13 of the top 20 total.
Reigning champion: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
2017 runner-up: Ubly
2018 top-ranked: 1. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, 2. Saugatuck, 3. Pittsford.
The Irish have won the last three Division 4 championships, last year by 99 points – but they’re in for perhaps the toughest race of this run against Saugatuck, which edged Sacred Heart to win the Division 4 race at the Oct. 6 Portage Invitational (although Sacred Heart was missing its fifth runner). The Irish have five of their seven runners back from last year’s championship team, with senior Scout Nelson coming in third individually in 2017, junior Desiree McConnell eighth and senior Lauren MacDonald 19th. Total, Sacred Heart has four of the top 19 ranked runners in Division 4. Saugatuck has three of the top 13, including senior Thea Johnson, who finished fifth in Division 3 in 2017. The Indians as a team last season finished fourth in Division 3 without a senior; the five scoring runners are back. Pittsford was 10th in Division 4 last season with just one senior, and five of the top six runners from that team will run this weekend led by senior Renee Osborne (16th individually in 2017).
Individuals: Four freshmen finished among the top 18 last season – led by Lansing Christian now-sophomore Madison Volz in fifth – and a freshman could be the story Saturday. Muskegon Western Michigan Christian’s Abby VanderKooi joins Rockford’s VanderLende as the only runners to clear 17 minutes this season, and VanderKooi’s best time of 16:57.3 is nearly 1:13 faster then Volz’s best as the second-ranked runner in Division 4. VanderKooi will work to outpace 12 top-20 returnees. In addition to those already mentioned, the following also are back: Hudsonsville Libertas Christian senior Anna Mason (sixth), Ubly senior Haili Gusa (seventh), Western Michigan Christian senior Josie Aardema (12th), Lansing Christian sophomore Lexi Kinnas (13th), Concord sophomore Skylar Thompson (14th), Royal Oak Shrine junior Ellie Kendell (15th) and Mayville sophomore Haley Rowbotham (18th).
PHOTO: Hart’s Adelyn Ackley charges down the final stretch on the way to winning her second straight Division 3 championship last fall at MIS. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)
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.