By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — It's not every high school cross country program that can lean upon the wisdom of an alumnus who is a three-time Olympian.
Rockford is no ordinary program, however.
Rockford cross country was put on the map by two runners who would become elite competitors in major races, Jason Hartmann and Dathan Ritzenhein. Ritzenhein is one of America's most recognizable runners, making the last three U.S. Olympic teams.
"Ritz" is living back in Michigan while training for next year's U.S. Olympic marathon trials, making him accessible to the current group of Rams, for whom he's a running idol.
Ritzenhein spoke with this year's team as it prepared to do something that not even the great teams led by he and Hartmann could do — win back-to-back MHSAA championships. Every little bit helped, as the Rams squeaked out a 99-101 victory over Northville in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 meet Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
Senior Isaac Harding won in 15:10.4, becoming Rockford's first individual champion since the four-year run of Hartmann (1997 and 1998) and Ritzenhein (1999 and 2000).
"It's kind of nice to sort of race through his footsteps a little bit," Harding said of Ritzenhein. "He supports the Rams. He talked to our team a little bit earlier this week. He reminds us to stay composed for the end of the season, supporting us and stuff like that."
Rockford had two MHSAA titles, in 2000 and 2002, before winning these back-to-back championships. The Rams, who have been to 21 straight MHSAA Finals, were runners-up three straight years from 1997-99.
"Winning the state meet last year was really exciting," Harding said. "We came back this year with four of our top five back. We had our fifth guy step up."
Harding, sophomore Cole Johnson, senior Grant Gabriel and senior Grayson Harding scored for Rockford each of the last two years. Johnson was third in 15:15.0, Gabriel 34th in 16:00.3 and Harding 39th in 16:04.4. Rounding out the scoring was senior Matthew MacGregor, who ran 16:24.9 in his first MHSAA Finals.
Northville had five runners cross among the top 33 among team runners, while Rockford's were in the top 54. Northville, however, couldn't overcome Rockford's strength at the top in Harding and Johnson.
In the individual race, Harding bided his time in windy conditions before breaking away from Alpena junior Mitchell Day in the final quarter mile. There were four runners in contention as the leaders entered the track.
"My goal was to make a move in the last 1,200 (meters) or 1K," Day said. "Four people did, then in the last 300, 400 meters is when the two of us made another move. He kind of took off."
Harding is the only member of the current Rockford team to run in the Finals for four years. He has improved every year in place and time, going from 70th (16:14.6) to 31st (16:06.8) to fourth (15:23.2) to champion.
"It's been kind of a really long road," Harding said. "Since my freshman year, I've been looking at results, trying to think if I can beat most of the people in my grade. Toward the end of my freshman year, I started thinking I could just try to work my way up the ladder and get to the top so my senior year I came through first."
It's the third straight year Northville has produced the best boys finish in school history. The Mustangs were fifth in 2013 and fourth last year. Prior to this run, the Mustangs' back-to-back ninth-place showings in 1977 and 1978 represented the high-water mark for the program.
Junior Ben Cracraft was 14th in 15:42.1, while senior Conor Naughton was 15th in 15:42.5 to lead Northville. Naughton has been part of all three top-five teams.
Novi was third with 176 points.
Click for full results.
The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s Isaac Harding pushes down the final stretch on the way to winning his first MHSAA title. (Middle) Rockford senior Grant Gabriel, 121, leads another pack toward the finish. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)