By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
BROOKLYN — Amber Way of Charlevoix made up a lot of ground since last year, but couldn't quite close the gap entirely against Gina Patterson of Macomb Lutheran North.
Patterson repeated as the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 girls cross country champion, but had to win a ferocious duel with Way to do so on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway. The two runners went back and forth until Patterson edged ahead in the final quarter mile to win in 18:02.7. Way took second in 18:04.2. Nobody else was within 31 seconds of the frontrunners.
"I could feel her the whole way," Patterson said. "This race is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's a race I'll never forget."
Patterson ran faster (17:43.4) and won by a more comfortable margin of 16.4 seconds last year – when Way finished in fourth place in 18:13.6.
In critiquing her performance last year, Way thought she wasn't aggressive enough early in the race, causing her to lose contact with the leaders.
"I knew I could've done better," Way said. "I was too far in the back. That was a big goal of mine, not to get way behind the pack."
Way took the lead at the mile mark on Saturday, but felt the pace was a little too hard.
"I just wasn't ready for that quite yet, but I did my best," she said.
As they battled in the final mile, Patterson was aware of Way's track speed. Way took second in the 3,200-meter run at the MHSAA LP Division 3 track and field meet in 2012 with a time of 11:07.63. In that same race, Patterson was fifth in 11:28.71. Way then set the meet record in winning that event this spring in 10:48.48.
"I was extremely worried," Patterson said. "She's a great, great competitor and has a great kick. She almost won the two mile last year in track, so I know she's definitely a real strong competitor."
Patterson said she felt relaxed coming in as the reigning champion.
"I am really blessed to have such a great school to represent, teammates, family and friends," she said. "There was really no pressure. They just encouraged me to do my best and hope that I can represent my school well. I'm so thankful to everyone to have their support."
Shepherd won the team championship with 120 points, outscoring runner-up Benzie Central by 66.
It was the second MHSAA championship for the Bluejays, who were the 1994 Class C winners. Since then, their best finish was fifth place the following year. They were ninth, 12th and ninth the past three years in the MHSAA Finals.
Shepherd had only one senior last year, but overhauled its lineup with the inclusion of three fast freshmen. Senior Kaylie Rhynard was the team's No. 1 runner once again, placing seventh overall in 18:55.5. She was followed by the three freshmen, as Katelyn Hutchinson was 12th in 19:12.8, Kylie Hutchinson 44th in 20:15.0 and Rachel Mathers 47th in 20:20.4. Junior Taylor Thrush (49th, 20:21.6) completed the scoring.
PHOTO: Macomb Luthern North's Gina Patterson (right) chases Charlevoix's Amber Way on the way to winning Saturday's Division 3 Final at MIS. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)