Sacred Heart, Strenge Surge Again

November 5, 2016

Second Half reports

BROOKLYN – Ava Strenge and Bailley McConnell both got what they came for Saturday.

Strenge, a Battle Creek St. Philip senior, reclaimed the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 individual cross country championship with a powerful front-running performance at Michigan International Speedway.

McConnell, a distant individual runner-up, helped her Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart team post another record-breaking point total en route to the team championship.

Strenge led from start to finish, winning the race in 18:27.2.

McConnell was second in 18:55.6, leading a dominant Sacred Heart team that had six all-state runners and a seventh who missed by one place.

The Irish broke the Division 4 record of 52 points they scored last year by scoring 34, beating runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia by 82. Sacred Heart’s total ranks sixth all-time in any division and is the lowest since Rockford won Class A with 25 points in 1998.

“It’s awesome,” said McConnell, a junior. “It’s good to be a team and work together, cheer each other on and be really close to each other. Sometimes we get to run with each other during the race.

“We were hoping to make another record. We’ve had some injuries and sicknesses, so we were just hoping to maintain that.”

There have been some great sister acts in MHSAA cross country history, but nothing like the McConnells.

Not only was Bailley second, but senior Alexis McConnell was fourth in 19:09.1 and sophomore Cammie McConnell was fifth in 19:10.6.

“I went out with my sisters,” Bailley said. “They like to pace me a lot and I like to pace with them, so we just kind of stayed back. Each mile, we’d see the time and I’d push harder so I could keep a constant pace.”

Also scoring for Sacred Heart were sophomore Lauren MacDonald (11th, 19:41.0) and sophomore Scout Nelson (20th, 20:09.8). No. 6 runner Desiree McConnell’s place didn’t count in the team score, but she was still all-state with her 26th-place showing in 20:14.2. Even No. 7 runner Rowan Fitzpatrick almost made all-state, missing by one spot by placing 31st in 20:28.0.

Strenge was the Division 4 champion two years ago. She led most of last year’s race before being run down by Tessa Fornari of Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes.

“It was kind of a shock to me,” Strenge said. “I was disappointed, but I still had next year.”

Strenge was determined not to be caught again, charging to the front and pushing a hard pace. The way she pumped her arms was more in line with a middle-distance runner on the track than a cross country runner.

“I like to get out in front of the pack,” Strenge said. “Our start was way in the far corner. I wanted to get in the front as soon as possible. I’m not really a good sprinter, so I wanted a lead before they could pass me on the straightaway.”

Click for full results.

The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sisters Alexis McConnell (1857) and Cammie McConnell run to top-five finishes in the Division 4 girls race Saturday. (Middle) Battle Creek St. Philip’s Ava Strenge sprints the final stretch to win her second individual title in three seasons. (Click to see more from

Grand Rapids Speedsters Dominate Division 2 Girls Cross Country Final

November 4, 2023

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.

Natalie VanOtteren leads Grand Rapids Christian's team title run with a fifth-place finish.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.

Click for full results.

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/