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.)
BOYNE FALLS — Pontiac Notre Dame Prep’s girl ski team has dominated the slopes since 2016 and continued the trend Monday at Boyne Mountain.
The Irish placed first at the Division 2 Finals with a team combined score of 61. Petoskey finished runner-up with just four skiers to collect a team score of 87, and Great North Alpine finished third.
Senior Syndey Schulte was Notre Dame Prep’s top placer, finishing runner-up in slalom (1:09.19), and she was followed in that event by senior Peyton Schindler in fourth and senior Claire Kirchner in seventh. Kirchner was fourth in the giant slalom, and Schulte was seventh as the Irish placed four among the top 13.
“We had a great bunch of girls that skied well,” Norte Dame coach Craig McLeod said. “These girls show up to training every day and pay attention to what we’ve asked them, and they do it.”
Schindler has racked up tons of medals during her time at NDP, having helped the Irish win Division 2 championships during her freshmen and sophomore years before they finished sixth a year ago.
“It’s nice to have new faces, and it’s cool to see all of our hard work come into culmination of this,” Schindler said.
McLeod couldn’t be more pleased with the way his team performed at its Regional and the Finals. As he talked about his team, he was emotional knowing what this win meant to the Irish.
“The girls have won everything they touched,” McLeod said. “I have an amazing group of senior girls, and I’m proud of all the things they have done.”
Petoskey senior Marley Spence swept the giant slalom (1:14.91) and slalom (1:06.78). Spence also won giant slalom and was second in slalom as a junior, and she became the 12th skier in Finals history to win girls giant slalom at least twice.
"I cried," Spence said when she found out she won. "I ran to my parents and shed a lot of tears.
"All the emotions come in here, and it's been building out for weeks, so I'm shocked but happy," she added.
Spence was one of the four skiers who helped her team to a podium finish. Before they found out they were runners-up, Spence didn't think they'd get a team win with just four skiers – but Petoskey defeated the odds.
Cadillac senior Georgette Sake finished seconds behind Spence in the giant slalom with a combined time of 1:15.65. Cadillac as a team finished third with multiple top-10 placers in giant slalom.
"I enjoyed my four years at Cadillac," Sake said. "I don't think of skiing as a sport. I think of it as a family. The ski community is so great and cool."
PHOTOS (Top) Petoskey’s Marley Spence speeds through one of her runs on the way to winning both individual championships Monday. (Middle) Notre Dame Prep’s Sydney Schulte caps her career with two more top-10 Finals finishes. (Click for more later this week from Sports in Motion – Division 2.)