By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
There could be a few changes on the trophy stand at the end of Saturday’s Lower Peninsula Girls Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway.
But maybe not.
Reigning champions Birmingham Seaholm in Division 1, Grand Rapids Christian in Division 2 and Beal City in Division 4 all graduated pack leaders this spring – but remain among the top-three ranked teams in their respective divisions.
In an opposite scenario, two of the top three contenders in Division 3 didn’t run as a team at the Finals a year ago.
See below for the stories behind the team and individual races for all four divisions, and click for a full list of qualifiers for each and information on Saturday’s event – which this fall includes 975 girls.
Reigning champion: Birmingham Seaholm
2014 runner-up: Traverse City Central
2015 top-ranked: 1. Birmingham Seaholm, 2. Northville, 3. Brighton.
Seaholm graduated its top three from the championship run including the top two individual finishers in the LP Division 1 race – but the next three runners last season all finished among the top eight at last week’s Regional, with junior Audrey Ladd second and senior Patty Girardot crossing third. Northville won LPD1 in 2013 and then finished third last season with only one senior among its seven runners; all seven Mustangs finished among the top 16 at last week's Regional, led by senior Lexa Barrott in second place. She was 15th at the 2014 Final, and junior Cayla Eckenroth was 11th. Brighton finished only ninth a year ago but with three freshmen, two sophomores and a junior making up the top six. All seven runners were among the top 19 at last week’s Regional, with senior Jenna Sica third.
Individuals: In addition to the Northville pair mentioned above, seven more are back from last year’s top 15. Macomb L’Anse Creuse sophomore Karenna Duffey, Port Huron senior Rachel Bonner and Traverse City Central sophomore Sielle Kearney took third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Ann Arbor Pioneer sophomore Anne Forsyth was seventh and Romeo senior Emma Wilson was 10th. Wilson finished nine seconds ahead of Bonner at their Regional last week, and Kearney and Forsyth also won Regional titles – as did Farmington’s Maddy Trevisan and Grandville’s Madison Troy, who finished 12th and 13th at the 2014 Final. Milford junior Mallory Barrett, 17th last year, finished ahead of the Seaholm runners last week, and Royal Oak junior Grace Cutler and Saline sophomore Jessi Larson also broke 18 minutes in winning Regional races.
Reigning champion: Grand Rapids Christian
2014 runner-up: Otsego
2015 top-ranked: 1. Otsego, 2. Grand Rapids Christian, 3. East Grand Rapids.
Otsego finished a distant second to Grand Rapids Christian a year ago, but with no seniors and six underclassmen. The Bulldogs took seven of the top 12 places at their Regional with junior Megan Aalberts finishing first – she’s a strong possibility to improve on her fourth place at last season’s Final. Christian has won two straight LPD2 titles and can’t be counted out, of course. The Eagles put all seven runners among the top 11 at their Regional with junior Megan Schenkel third and senior Claire Brouwer fourth; Brouwer was ninth individually at the 2014 Final. East Grand Rapids was fifth at the Final with five seniors, but placed four underclassmen among the top 11 finishers in dominating this season's Regional. Sophomore Kate O’Connell, the team’s fifth finisher at MIS last year, came in second at the Regional.
Individuals: Aalberts is the top returning finisher from a year ago and Brouwer was third-fastest among racers who will be back. Hamilton junior Erika Freyhof was seventh a year ago and Whitehall junior Maya Hector was 12th, and Freyhof outpaced Holland Christian junior Kayla Windemuller 18:46-18:52 in one of the fastest Regional finishes in the division. Flint Powers Catholic junior Julia Vanitvelt, St. Clair sophomore Gabrielle Morton, Gaylord senior Alexis Smith and Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills senior Madison Goen all broke 19 minutes to win Regionals; Goen ahead of the Grand Rapids Christian group and Smith ahead of Hector.
Reigning champion: Ithaca
2014 runner-up: Shepherd
2015 top-ranked: 1. Traverse City St. Francis, 2. Lansing Catholic, 3. Benzonia Benzie Central.
St. Francis as a team will join reigning individual champion Holly Bullough at the Final this season after taking the top four places at its Regional with Bullough leading the way in an incredible 17:15.4 and freshman Katelyn Duffing and junior Emmalyne Tarsa both breaking 19 minutes. Lansing Catholic is expected to take a jump from sixth last season with its top three back and after taking the top three places at its Regional led by sophomore Olivia Theis, who broke 19 minutes and also was the top finisher for the team in 2014. Benzie Central also didn’t run as a team at last year’s Final; now-senior Stephanie Schaub was 23rd as an individual qualifier. The Huskies were the Regional runner-up to St. Francis placing all seven runners among the top 20 and five among the top 13.
Individuals: Bullough is the clear favorite and only three others from last year’s top 15 are back – Hart junior Sierra Albus (ninth), Clare junior Jasmine Harper (11th) and Ithaca junior Courtney Allen (12th). Watch for a trio of freshmen: St. Louis’ Brooklyn Filipiak, Hart’s Adelyn Ackley and Shepherd’s Amber Gall all broke 19 minutes at their Regionals, the latter two finishing ahead of Harper and Albus.
Reigning champion: Beal City
2014 runner-up: Kalamazoo Hackett
2015 top-ranked: 1. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, 2. Saugatuck, 3. Beal City.
Sacred Heart, third at the 2014 Final, has been a few steps ahead of two-time reigning champion Beal City this season and finished ahead of the Aggies again in winning their Regional. Irish junior Alexis McConnell finished individual runner-up a year ago and won the Regional in 18:53.9 as her team placed all seven runners among the top 11 and four of the top five. Beal City put five among the top 18 at the Regional, and senior Hannah Steffke leads the way after finishing sixth individually at MIS in 2014. Saugatuck was eighth at last year’s Final but paced by three underclassmen. Sophomore Paisley Sipes was the leader last year coming in 15th at the Final and won this year’s Regional followed by two more strong underclassmen – freshmen Thea Johnson and Rose O’Brien – as all seven runners came in among the top 12.
Individuals: Familiar faces will abound as 11 of last season’s top 15 will be back at MIS – including reigning champion Ava Strenge. The Battle Creek St. Philip junior dominated most of this season – but despite running an 18:50 at the Regional finished second by 10 seconds to Kalamazoo Hackett sophomore Mary Ankenbauer, who came in third individually at the 2014 Final. Waterford Our Lady senior Tessa Fornari, eighth last season, won in the fastest Regional time in the division at 18:27.3. Lutheran Westland senior Jenna Wisner, 10th last year, also won a Regional title, by nearly a minute.
The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTO: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart’s Alexis McConnell (1848), Battle Creek St. Phillip’s Ava Strenge (1972) and Waterford Our Lady’s Tessa Fornari (1912) finished among the top eight in LP Division 4 last season and are among strong favorites this weekend. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)