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

Kent City's Evers Selected for NFHS National 'Coach of the Year' Honor

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

January 11, 2023

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 EversJill 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.