By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
ZEELAND — Karrigan Smith wasn't going to put up a false front.
Neither was her coach, Neil Feldpausch.
Nobody expected St. Johns to come away with the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 girls track and field championship Saturday at Zeeland Stadium.
And "nobody" included St. Johns athletes and coaches.
"I think I can speak for everyone when I say this is a surprise," said Smith, a senior who had a hand in all but four of her team's points as St. Johns edged Flint Southwestern Academy 36-34.
"A small town like St. Johns winning a state title in track and field? It's an indescribable feeling right now."
Just two years ago, St. Johns wasn't even a factor in its own league, taking fifth place out of six teams. The Redwings won their conference the last two years.
"Definitely we thought (Smith) could score points, but coming in thinking we were going to win the state meet? No, it didn't even cross my mind," Feldpausch said. "These girls have surprised me."
St. Johns had never had a top-10 finish at the finals before Saturday. Smith has been a standout for four years, but got enough assistance that the Redwings were able to score in three of the four relays.
Smith repeated as the 1,600-meter champion in a rout, posting a time of 4:59.08 to win by 9.35 seconds. Smith set the LP Division 2 Final record of 4:51.53 last year when she was locked in a duel with Megan O'Neil of Remus Chippewa Hills.
"It was a little bit weird," Smith said of the one-sided 1,600 final, "but I wasn't going to count any competitors out, because when you come to the state meet a lot of people can do great things and surprise themselves. I was taking this race very seriously. I knew what I had to do. I knew what I could control. That's what I did."
By not being pushed too hard in the 1,600, Smith was fresher for her final two events. She placed third in the 800 in 2:16.94 and was on the second-place 1,600 relay team that clinched the championship. (Southwestern didn't have a team qualify for the final event.)
Smith was also on the second-place 3,200 relay squad that posted a time of 9:31.57.
"I was very excited about how the whole day went," Smith said. "It made all the hard work we put in over the season worth it."
Senior Lyndsay Pung, junior Emily Wohlfert and Belgian exchange student Pauline Carbonnelle were on the fifth-place 800 and second-place 1,600 relay teams. Junior Anna Krumm was also on the 800 relay squad.
Juniors Jen Eaton and Milah Montle and freshman Madison Maloney were on the 3,200 relay team.
"Going in, I scored it out to be Flint Southwestern 39, St. Johns 34," Feldpausch said. "Looking throughout the meet, it kept getting closer. We did some things we needed to and made it happen."
It was the first MHSAA title for St. Johns in a girls sport. The Redwings' other MHSAA crowns are in wrestling (four) and boys track and field (one).
Flint Southwestern led going into the final event on the strength of an outstanding performance by senior Miaisha Blair. Blair won a highly competitive long jump with a leap of 18 feet, 9.25 inches. The top three finishers cleared at least 18-3. Blair was also on Southwestern's second-place 800 and 400 relay teams.
A cool, rainy day — a contrast to the typical scorchers at the finals — probably helped keep Smith fresher for her four events.
It was certainly a welcome break in the weather for the other distance champion, Cedar Springs senior Kenzie Weiler. Weiler was able to challenge the LP Division 2 Final record in the 3,200, but came up short with her time of 10:41.98. Ali Wiersma of Allendale ran 10:40.22 in 2012.
Weiler stayed behind Kelli Nesky of Hudsonville Unity Christian until 500 meters remained.
"It was about 30 degrees warmer last year," Weiler said. "I broke my outdoor (personal record) by six or seven seconds. That made me pretty happy. This is perfect. I couldn't ask for a better day and better competition at the state finals."
PHOTO: St. Johns' Karrigan Smith runs toward the finish during one of her races Saturday at Zeeland Stadium. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City.
As she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore.
“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.
“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.”
Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team.
“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.”
Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.
Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled.
“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind.
“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said.
Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.
“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.
“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.”
Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness.
“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.”
Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season.
“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.”
Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor.
“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.”
The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear.
She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do.
“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.”
Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture.
“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.”
Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)