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.)
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.)