By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
BROOKLYN — Jesse Hersha had just crossed the finish line with his second MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 cross country championship, but he wasn't thinking about himself.
As soon as the Concord junior finished the 3.1-mile course Saturday at Michigan International Speedway, he turned around and watched the race unfold behind him.
Of particular interest were the purple and gold jerseys of his Concord teammates, who were engaged in personal battles that would determine whether or not the Yellowjackets would win a third straight team championship.
Trying to do the math with so many bodies sprinting to the line proved to be too difficult, as did the challenge of securing a three-peat. Concord had to settle for a third-place finish with 134 points, marking the sixth straight year it finished in the top six.
"I wasn't focused on my race so much as I was focused on my team's race," Hersha said. "We didn't do as well as we would've hoped, but it happens."
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Hersha would win a second straight championship, but stranger things have happened at MIS. He dominated the field as expected, posting a time of 15:49.2 on a muddy course to win by a whopping 44.8 seconds over East Jordan senior Josh Wojan.
"It felt a lot different, because this year you knew as well as I did that I had a really good chance of winning it," Hersha said. "I'd beaten almost everyone there except (Evart's David) Zinger last year, but I still had that doubt. This year, I didn't have that doubt at all."
Hersha took off hard and didn't give anyone a chance to get into the race. Pushing himself when nobody else was around to assist was the most difficult part for Hersha.
"It's tough, but you've got to think to yourself, 'I've got to get going,'" he said. "I could jog the last 100 meters and maybe still win, but you've got to keep pushing yourself, even if no one else is pushing you."
For someone accustomed to winning easily, Hersha said his most memorable race this season was the only one he didn't win. He ran with the larger schools at the Spartan Invitational (at Michigan State University) on Sept. 13, taking third in a personal-best 15:31. He won his other 13 races this year.
"That was fun," he said. "By the time I got to the second mile, guys were catching up with me and passing me. It was a lot different."
Dethroning Concord as Division 4 champion was Saugatuck, which scored 113 points to edge Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart by eight.
The difference, as it often does, came down to the fifth and final scoring runner. Saugatuck junior Joe Brown was 40th among team runners in 17:52.2, 17 places ahead of Sacred Heart sophomore Sam Neyer (18:07.4).
Junior Jacob Pettinga led Saugatuck, placing third overall in 16:36.9. Senior Clayton Springer was seventh among team runners (16:53.7), freshman Nick Butch was third (17:27.0) and freshman Zachary Pettinga was 38th (17:48.1).
Only three Saugatuck runners had ever competed in the MHSAA meet, with three freshmen in the varsity seven. The team's best finishes ever were fourth-place showings in 2006, 2007 and 2012. Saugatuck had never qualified for the MHSAA Finals until 2001, but has now made it eight of the last 13 years.
PHOTO: Concord's Jesse Hersha extends his lead on the way to his second straight MHSAA championship. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)