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.)
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.)