By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN — Ava Strenge's goals were constantly being upgraded as she made her way along the five-kilometer cross country course at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday.
She didn't come into the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 meet as one of the favorites, having placed 73rd last year on what was admittedly a bad day.
"I was hoping for a top 10, at best," the Battle Creek St. Philip sophomore said.
Then the race started to unfold. Strenge found herself near the front of the pack, within striking distance of first place.
"Maybe at the mile point, I was second or third, and I thought I could do a top three," she said.
"I didn't think about that until that straightaway," she said.
Turning on the jets down the final long straightaway at MIS, Strenge won a three-girl battle for the championship with a time of 18:54.5.
Sophomore Alexis McConnell of Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart was second in 18:58.1, while freshman Mary Ankenbauer of Kalamazoo Hackett took third in 18:58.6.
"I was really relieved," Strenge said. "Usually the straightaways are where people get me, because I'm not a good sprinter. I can't go that fast."
Strenge beat her personal best of 19:14.6 set in the regional meet.
It was a much better finish to the season for Strenge, who ran 21:13.3 at MIS last year after dipping below 20 minutes four times during the season.
"The nerves," she said, trying to offer up a reason for last year's disappointment. "I might have overtrained that last week, because it was my first year and I was really excited. I might have overdid it."
Beal City, which returned six of seven runners from last year's championship team, repeated as the team title winner with 94 points.
Hackett was second with 108, followed by Sacred Heart with 130.
Senior Emily Steffke and junior Hannah Steffke led Beal City, taking fifth (19:15.0) and sixth (19:26.0), respectively. Senior Hayley Neyer also made the top-30 all-state range, placing 27th in 20:17.6. Freshman Madeline Steffke, the only newcomer to the lineup, was 41st in 20:40.6. Sophomore Ariel Salter completed the scoring, taking 55th in 20:55.4.
Hackett had four runners cross before Beal City’s fourth did, but there was a 16-point difference between the schools' fifth and final scorer.
PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek St. Philip’s Ava Strenge capped her sophomore season by improving 72 places to win the LP Division 4 title. (Middle) Beal City’s Emily Steffke (745) and North Muskegon’s Avery Lowe race for top-five finishes; Lowe ended up fourth and Steffke fifth for the team champion Aggies. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)