By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
KENTWOOD – The Oak Park girls track & field team won the final event of Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals.
That victory in the 1,600 relay was the Knights’ lone victory of the meet. However, a lack of individual winners didn’t prevent them from going back-to-back as overall champions.
Oak Park’s depth was on display as it scored 74 points to win the Finals at East Kentwood High School. Detroit Renaissance took runner-up with 71 points, while Rockford was third with 69.
The Knights have won five Division 1 titles over the last six years.
“A complete team win, and we were solid across the board,” Oak Park coach Brandon Jiles said. “I think it’s the first championship we’ve won where we’ve only won one event, but they placed in everything else so it worked out for us. It was a great meet.”
Oak Park won the 1,600 relay with Jayla Jones, Tamyra Todd, Kourtney Kennard and Chloe Vines in a meet record-breaking time of 3:45.13.
“I’m so humbled and excited,” Vines said. “I’m proud of myself because there are times I don’t think I’m capable of doing certain things, but my teammates trusted me. The girls with me are all underclassmen and they are so motivational and inspiring. They make me want to do great.”
Jiles believed his team had the talent and depth to win even without notching first-place finishes.
“We were really balanced across the board this year,” Jiles said. “We weren’t exceptional in anything, but we were really good in a lot of things.
“It’s a little bit sweeter when you can win a tight battle with two other great teams. Renaissance was outstanding in sprints, and Rockford was amazing with their distance and overall team. I have a lot of respect for those teams, and we had to get the best out of our kids to even think about winning.”
Rockford senior Ericka VanderLende won the 1,600 (4:41.00) and 3,200 (10.24.57) and finished runner-up in the 800.
“I was really happy to complete all three events and not completely fall apart at the end, so I could get all the points I could for my team,” VanderLende said. “I was really happy to get two PRs (personal records) and then just come back and finish strong in my last race ever for Rockford.”
VanderLende won the 1,600 a year ago and placed runner-up in the 3,200.
“I just wanted to give it my best effort and go home knowing that I did all I could and laid it all on the line,” VanderLende said.
Her run at three titles was spoiled by Grand Haven senior Gabby Hentemann, who clocked a winning time of 2:08.70 to win the 800.
Hentemann, a senior, missed last year’s Finals due to a foot injury.
“I was in a boot cheering for my teammates last year after suffering a stress fracture,” Hentemann said. “It was a very painful and long recovery, so being able to just race today was a huge opportunity.
“It was very emotional for me to come back and win because my coaches and teammates watched me struggle the past year mentally and physically to recover from this injury.”
Detroit Renaissance freshman Kaila Jackson had an impressive debut and claimed a victory in the 200 (24.04), while finishing runner-up in the 100.
“I wanted to push myself harder after the 100 so I could win the 200,” Jackson said. “Most people get angry, but I build my anger up and take it out on the track. It was a great experience for my first state meet with the crowd and all the other runners. We pushed each other, and it was amazing.”
Jackson’s teammate, Leeah Burr, won the 400 in a time of 54.17.
White Lake Lakeland’s Grace Stark repeated in the 100 hurdles (13.43).
Other individual winners included: East Kentwood’s Qe’Neisha Young (100), Troy’s Lauren Fulcher (300 hurdles), East Kentwood’s Belle Okoroafo (discus), Dexter’s Nicole Bow (pole vault), Okemos’ Jasmine Clerkley (shot put), Mona Shores’ Elizabeth Knoll (high jump) and Walled Lake Western’s Kennedy Jackson (long jump).
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PHOTOS: (Top) Oak Park celebrates its fifth Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship over the last six seasons. (Middle) Rockford's Ericka VanderLende capped her high school career with two more individual titles. (Photos by Carter Sherline. Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)