West Ottawa's Olson Aims to Add XC Title to Growing List of Achievements

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

August 24, 2022

HOLLAND – Arianna Olson won her first individual state title when she outran the field in the 3,200 meters at last spring’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Track & Field Finals.

West MichiganLess than three months later, the West Ottawa senior standout is gearing up to accomplish the same feat on the cross country trails.

“That was my first state title in running, but it was something I wasn’t completely sure of because there’s a lot of good girls in the state,” Olson said. “Since I started running, the 3,200 is more of my event, and things went really well for that.” 

Olson has blossomed into one of the most talented distance runners in the state and garnered three top-10 finishes in three years at the Finals.

She finished runner-up as a freshman and eighth as a sophomore, and was among the favorites again last year on the way to placing third at the LPD1 Final at Michigan International Speedway.

She was unbeaten during the regular season, setting a new personal record (16:45), and she also won a Regional championship.

“I think last year at state I was prioritizing more of the postseason, and my big goal was to qualify for nationals, so that was a few weeks after,” Olson said. “That was the priority in training, and I tapered before state, but it wasn’t the best training the week before. I knew I had more chances after the state meet.”

Olson’s performance, coupled with freshman Helen Sach’s fifth-place effort, helped West Ottawa finish as Division 1 runner-up behind Ann Arbor Pioneer.

“Third is still excellent, but the goal was to win an individual title and a team title and we came up short on both sides,” Panthers cross country coach Kyle Barnes said. “There were a combination of things that went into that, but she hasn’t won a cross country title so that is certainly on her radar. Michigan has a lot of good runners, so she is going to have her hands full to do that this year.”

A month after last fall’s Finals, Olson set out to prove herself at the national level, and did just that in San Diego. Olson competed in the Eastbay Nationals, which featured the top 40 distance runners in the country. She placed fourth at a Midwest qualifier in Wisconsin to qualify. 

Olson finished 13th in California with a time of 17:43.04 to gain All-American honors.

Arianna Olson rounds a corner during another 2021 race. The following month, Olson was named as the Gatorade Michigan Cross Country Player of the Year.

She was the first West Ottawa athlete to earn the prestigious honor, which also recognizes academic achievement and exemplary character off the field.

“That was cool because it doesn’t only take into account athletics, but also the academics and service side of it,” said Olson, who carried a 4.0 GPA.

“I was really happy about that because it wasn’t just about athletics, it was recognizing the whole part of being a student-athlete.”

In June, Olson took part in another national event. She traveled to Seattle to compete in the Brooks PR Invitational and placed seventh in the 3,000 run.

“It was another good opportunity to race at a national-level meet, and I think at both national events it was good to get to know some of the other girls that I’m competing against,” Olson said. “It’s getting harder to find competitive races that have big pack running, and sometimes you have to be creative to find that in the regular season. Nationals is a good opportunity to push myself with the other girls and see what I can do.”

Barnes said Olson has benefited from competing against elite competition.

“All of that is valuable information, and getting those types of experiences and running against that level of competition is invaluable for her,” he said. “We talk about if she banks that information and learns from the positives and negatives, then she will continue to get better.”

Barnes took over the West Ottawa program when Olson was a freshman, and knew her potential after she set several middle school records.

“She works her butt off, and she was one of the first athletes to come through the program when I took over,” he said. “She has helped to build a culture within our program. She does all the right things, and the results speak for themselves.”

While Olson is aspiring to finish up as a champion in November, she’s taking her final season in stride.

“Cross is my favorite over track & field, so it’s about making the most of it with one more year with my team and just pushing really hard,” she said. “This season won’t necessarily be based on my times, but just running the courses to the best of my ability and knowing that at the end I’ve given my full effort.”

Olson, who is undecided on her college choice, will run her first race with her teammates Friday at Grand Rapids South Christian.

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 [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) West Ottawa’s Arianna Olson approaches the finish during last season’s LPD1 Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Olson rounds a corner during another 2021 race. (Top photo by Run Michigan; middle photo by Laura Veldhof Photography.)  

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

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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.