BROOKLYN – Helen Sachs of Holland West Ottawa doesn’t run alone in many cross country meets, which is unusual for an elite runner.
The best runners have to learn to race solo, because there will be meets in which they can simply overwhelm the competition.
But there is always at least one worthy competitor nearby when Sachs races. She runs on the same team as senior Arianne Olson, herself one of the top contenders at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
So, Sachs was surprised to find herself already alone at the front just 200 meters into the race. She never allowed the pack to catch up, winning by 24.73 seconds with a time of 17:18.74.
“I saw nobody in front of me except for the start when they all went off,” said Sachs, a sophomore. “I was just in front. I was like someone is gonna be coming up behind me, because I know the state meet is when people just go for it. No one came up with me.
“It was kind of weird. I was looking forward to some competition or people to run with. It was still fun to run in such a big race, though. It was cool.”
Sachs won eight of her 10 races this season, placing second in the other two to Olson. Olson, who was third in Division 1 last season, placed ninth this time in 18:27.13.
That powerful 1-2 punch up front allowed West Ottawa to win the team championship in dominant fashion, 97-172 over runner-up Romeo.
The Panthers placed their five scoring runners in the top 50, while every other contending team had at least one scoring runner place in the 100s.
Training daily with such a powerful team helped Sachs become an MHSAA champion.
“I just picked up on the dedication, getting everything in,” she said. “Our coaches this year focused more on recovery, like running easy, focusing on recovery, which has helped the mindset of everyone on the team.”
Sachs was a ready-made contributor to the West Ottawa program, finishing fifth in Division 1 last season. But even after finishing among the state’s elite a year ago, she didn’t believe she could win an MHSAA individual championship until she started winning big races early this year.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “Last year I was fifth. This year, winning the state championship was crazy. It doesn’t feel real.”
Rounding out the West Ottawa scorers were 38th-place senior Megan Postma, 49th-place sophomore Jane Olney and 50th-place freshman Ava Porras. Grandville senior Allison Arnsman was the individual runner-up in 17:43.47.
PHOTOS (Top) Holland West Ottawa’s Helen Sachs closes in on the finish and her first MHSAA Finals championship. (Middle) West Ottawa’s Arianne Olson and Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central’s Clara James-Heer lead another pack down the stretch. (Click for more from Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)
GRANDVILLE – Almost a year ago, Allie Arnsman didn’t know whether she would ever be able to run competitively again.
Over the last week, the Grandville senior was named Ms. Cross Country by the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association while also establishing a school record.
Arnsman suffered a broken right foot during last year’s cross country season that required surgery.
“They told me there was a small possibility of even being able to run again,” Arnsman said. “It was very scary going into the surgery thinking that there was a 90-percent chance that I wouldn’t be able to run, but I had the doctors and the physical therapists that were able to get me back.”
Arnsman sustained the injury during the third meet of her junior season when she stepped in a hole on the course.
Originally, doctors didn’t think the injury was serious.
“They kept telling us it was just a sprain, and after six weeks it would be healed,” said Arnsman, who wore a boot on her right foot.
Arnsman returned to run in the final three races of last year, and finished 17th overall in the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.
However, she still felt uncertain that her foot was completely healed.
“It was really painful when I ran and I thought something was still wrong, but I wanted to finish out my junior year and I was grateful that I did,” Arnsman said. “Right after the state meet I had an MRI, and it revealed that it was broken.”
Arnsman missed the track & field season due to her recovery after surgery. She began running again in late spring and then returned in August for her senior year.
“It was a tough injury for her to overcome, but she came back and we started talking about goals for the season,” Grandville girls cross country coach Rachael Steil said. “I told her that I thought she had the potential to finish in the top five (at the Finals) and we joked about her winning.
“She had so much untapped potential, and she did so well on little mileage. She doesn’t realize how talented she is, but with the hard work she put in I felt like it was going to be a really good season.”
Arnsman ran well throughout the season and continued to drop her times.
At the Finals, she exceeded her own expectations by placing runner-up in Division 1 behind West Ottawa’s Helen Sachs.
Arnsman finished with a time of 17 minutes, 43 seconds at Michigan International Speedway.
“I was just trying to go out with the front pack, and I wanted to stick up close and then close in in the last mile,” she said. “It was tough to catch her because she went out very fast, and I wasn't used to that pace. The weather conditions weren't great, and I just couldn't get up there.”
Still, Arnsman was ecstatic about her finish.
“I was really excited,” she said. “Coming into the season I did not think I could even be top three and I was hoping for a top 15, so placing second was amazing. It was a dream.”
Arnsman got more good news after the race as she was the top senior in all divisions and was named Ms. Cross Country.
“When they pulled me aside in the room I had the biggest smile on my face,” Arnsman said. “I knew going in that it was a possibility, but of course I didn't know right away. I was so excited.”
A week later, Arnsman ran in the MITCA Meet of Champions and became the fastest girl in Grandville school history when she finished second with a time of 17 minutes flat.
The previous record of 17:20 was set by Madison Troy in 2015.
“She was drastically improving through the season, and I knew the possibilities were endless for her,” Steil said. “She has great form, and she’s strong from all the weight training she did. She put all the little pieces together, and they came together at the right time.”
Arnsman will run for Grand Valley State next year, but it’s been a journey that was somewhat unexpected after growing up as an accomplished soccer player.
She stopped playing soccer after her sophomore year to focus on running.
“I grew up in soccer, so it was scary going into a new sport and giving up something that I loved,” Arnsman said. “It was a different sport and a whole new environment that I wasn’t used to, but I’m grateful that I was able to have the success I did. ... I never thought about running in college. I thought I would be playing college soccer.”
Arnsman, who ended her cross country career as a three-time Finals qualifier, will run indoor track & field this winter before running outdoor in the spring with her team.
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Grandville’s Allie Arnsman runs toward the finish at the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Cross Country Final on Nov. 5. (Middle) Arnsman, bottom row center, takes her place on the medal stand next to Holland West Ottawa champion Helen Sachs, far right. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)