By Andrew Rosenthal
Special for Second Half
HARBOR SPRINGS — Craig McLeod — quite literally — coaches state championship teams.
McLeod, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep and the Fighting Irish girls made it a three-peat Monday afternoon at the MHSAA Division 2 Ski Finals at Boyne Highlands. The third-year ski coach won his third girls championship after helping break the program’s 13-year title hiatus with the first of this string in 2019.
Before winning three Finals titles in a row (and every divisional and Regional meet during those three seasons) Notre Dame Prep had last won a girls Finals championship in 2006.
Teams north of the 45th parallel typically dominate the alpine ski meet, but now downstate teams have claimed four of the last five Division 2 girls titles as Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central won in 2017. Notre Dame was runner-up in 2017 and 2018 before its three-peat began.
“These girls have really worked hard,” McLeod said through tears. “You think about it, they've been putting their ski boots on like six or seven days a week since Thanksgiving. That takes a lot of work and a lot of focus.”
For a school with an enrollment of roughly 635 students, McLeod said 51 athletes (girls and boys combined) on this year's team was impressive. And there’s more to come. Three of Notre Dame’s four all-state finishers Monday are sophomores including slalom champion Sydney Schulte.
“We're drawn from our JV team and continuing to work and grow with our sophomore team,” McLeod said.
Schulte, who won slalom with a time of 1:27.14 and took fourth in giant slalom with a time of 1:00.11, said the girls she’s been around have felt more like a family than a team.
“I definitely think that there's more to come,” Schulte said. “It'll be kind of challenging that we're losing a little bit of the team, but I definitely think that there are some good people coming up on our team, and it's definitely not going to end.
“I just kind of thought about what I was working on in practice and just got rid of all the nerves and just laid it down.”
McLeod said four titles in a row is certainly a big challenge, but he knows his skiers are up for it.
“They are a bunch of great, hard-working young ladies that are really smart, get great grades and do well in every aspect of their life,” McLeod said. “It's fun to be a part of being with them and coaching them and helping them to be better people and create memories they'll have the rest of your life.”
Lowell’s Kaylee Byrne edged out Cadillac freshman Onalee Wallis for the GS title by 13 hundredths of a second after beating her in the Regional meet last week. All medalists in the GS were separated by less than a second, and that list also included fellow Vikings freshman Avery Meyer.
“She’s sneaky fast,” Cadillac coach James Netzley said of Wallis. "It's been a long, long time since we've had a Cadillac girl finish that high … so yeah, that was impressive. That was really impressive."
East Grand Rapids finished team runner-up with 115 points — a newcomer to Finals hardware in skiing. Cadillac tied Petoskey with 130 points for third place in Division 2, beating the Northmen in a tiebreaker because its fifth racer had a better finish. Last year Cadillac finished in sixth place, but the Vikings returned three members of that team.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep’s Sydney Schulte makes her way past a gate during one of her title-winning slalom runs Monday. (Middle) Lowell’s Kaylee Byrne races to the championship in the giant slalom. (Click for more from Sports in Motion.)
HARBOR SPRINGS — The Cadillac girls ski team knew it couldn’t sneak up on anyone at Monday’s Division 2 Final, and rose to the challenge.
Cadillac walked away from Nub's Nob Ski Area and Resort in Harbor Springs with its second championship in three years and fourth-straight top-three finish. The Vikings finished with a combined team score of 72. Harbor Springs finished runner-up with a combined team score of 91.
Mattawan and Paw Paw placed third (107), Bloomfield Hills Marian finished fourth (168) and Norway finished fifth (171).
"A couple of years ago, we snuck up and got a ski title, but this year, we had more of a target on our backs knowing we had a pretty good team to do something special," Cadillac head coach James Netzley said. "It was a little nervous feeling today because of the start."
Netzley said his skiers made it a goal to repeat what they did in 2022 after finishing third last year.
"We said last night that it was going to take a complete team effort if we wanted to do something special today," Netzley said. "That came true, and we relied on every kid on the team."
The Vikings started shaky at the slalom with a couple of falls, but in the end, several skiers pulled through. Senior Onalee Wallis led the Vikings with second-place finishes in the slalom and giant slalom. Wallis finished the slalom with a combined time of 1:12.63 and the giant slalom with a combined time of 51.67.
Wallis's teammate, senior Avery Meyer, finished third in the slalom with a combined time of 1:16.76. Great North Alpine's Grace Rowe finished fourth with a combined time of 1:17.46.
Rochester Adams' Katie Fodale finished third in the giant slalom (52.43), Meyer placed fourth (53.39), and Emma Borgula placed fifth in the giant slalom with a combined time of 53.97.
"They are pretty special kids," Netzley said about Meyer and Wallis. "Both have been first-team all-state for four years in a row, and gotten a top-10 finish since their freshmen year. Not many kids can do that by the time they come in as freshmen and cap off their senior year with outstanding performances."
Petoskey didn't have the outing it had hoped for, but senior Marley Spence stamped herself as one of the best high school athletes in the state after walking away with her fifth-straight D2 individual Finals medal after placing first in both the slalom and giant slalom. Spence finished the slalom with a combined time of 1:12.19 and giant slalom with a combined time of 51.17.
Northmen boys coach Ben Crockett, who leads the program alongside his sister and girls coach Jennifer Crockett, found no disagreement in naming Spence as one of the best individual athletes to come out of Petoskey, let alone the state.
"We've been trying to dig into the history books in Michigan, and she is definitely at the top of her group historically of anybody who has competed in a sport," Ben Crockett said. "She is the best in Michigan, and there is no question about it."
PHOTOS (Top) Petoskey’s Marley Spence races past a gate during the Division 2 giant slalom Monday. (Middle) Cadillac celebrates its second Finals team championship over the last three seasons. (Photos by Sarah Shepherd. Click for all photos; more will be added throughout this week.)