Second Half reports
BROOKLYN — When Ericka VanderLende came out for cross country as a freshman in 2015, there was nothing that indicated Rockford was getting another one of Michigan’s all-time great runners.
She had never run cross country before, and it showed. In her first high school race, she placed 68th in the Portage Central Early Bird with a time of 22:32.0.
“I liked running before high school, but I never ran over a mile before high school,” she said. “When I started, I didn’t really like it. I was the slowest on the team. I just gradually worked my way up my freshman year.”
VanderLende was a quality runner by the end of ninth grade and through her sophomore year, making Rockford’s top seven and placing 99th and 81st, respectively, at her first two MHSAA Finals.
Everything changed once she hit her junior year.
VanderLende came out of nowhere to win the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship and place 25th in the Foot Locker national meet in 2017. On Saturday, she joined Nikki Bohnsack (2001-02) as the only two-time champions in the rich history of the Rockford girls program, completely dominating a field of the state’s best runners to win in 17:08.4 in muddy conditions at Michigan International Speedway.
She showed what she’s capable of on a dry course one week earlier, winning the Regional meet in 16:43.3.
“It’s a little unexpected,” VanderLende said. “My parents just thought I’d be good at running, I guess. I gave it a shot.”
Despite the conditions, VanderLende’s was the sixth-fastest girls time since MIS began hosting the MHSAA Finals in 1996. She is one of only two girls who have two times in the top eight, the other being former Foot Locker national champion Megan Goethals of Rochester. VanderLende won last year in 17:16.8.
She already had begun to separate herself from the pack 700 meters into the race, a point at which at least one or two other runners will go out harder than is prudent and try sticking with the pre-race favorite.
“I was a little nervous that I took it out too hard, that I’d kind of fall back,” VanderLende said. “I felt good most of the time, so it was good.”
The race for second was much more intriguing, with a large group racing together well behind VanderLende at the two-mile mark. Kyla Christopher-Moody of West Bloomfield emerged from that group to place second in 17:58.6, just 1.2 seconds ahead of Ann Arbor Pioneer’s Zofia Dudek. Just 3.3 seconds separated second through fifth place.
Clarkston didn’t have a runner in that group, but the Wolves had the tightest pack of runners in a meet that was up for grabs when No. 1-ranked Northville had a rough day, placing eighth. Clarkston scored 134 points, beating Pioneer by 18.
Clarkston’s five scoring runners finished within 59 seconds of each other. Junior Mia Patria was 15th in 18:13.3, senior Grace Nolan was 16th in 18:15.8, senior Elizabeth Dalrymple was 40th in 18:58.1, senior Mallory Ferguson was 59th in 19:11.9 and sophomore Mattie Drennan was 60th in 19:12.3.
It was Clarkston’s first MHSAA championship in girls cross country since winning three in a row from 2003-05.
PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s Ericka VanderLende approaches the finish line on the way to repeating as Division 1 champion Saturday. (Middle) Clarkston’s Mia Patria (1148) pushes through the final stretch just ahead of teammate Grace Nolan as they took the top two places for the team champion. (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.