Freshmen athletes are supposed to start at the bottom of the pecking order while they learn, improve, and slowly work their way up.

But Western Michigan Christian cross country star Abby VanderKooi skipped all that.

Abby VanderKooi stands in the No. 1 spot on the MHSAA podium. Photo/Randy Riksen

The 14-year-old freshman got her first taste of the state cross country finals on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, and promptly dominated.

She easily won the Division 4 individual state championship with a time of 17:47.3, a full 1:17 ahead of the second-place runner, Madison Volz of Lansing Christian.

She also came very close to breaking the Division 4 state record of 17:44.

Her team also did very well. The Western Michigan Christian girls finished third overall in the Division 4 team competition with 199 points. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart won the state title.

“It makes me really happy,” said VanderKooi, who lives in Fremont. “It was my goal since last year to win state this year, so it was really fun.

“Last year I saw that the winning time (at state) was 18:15, and I had recently ran a race in Fremont in 18:03, and I remember thinking, ‘I could win that.'”

WMC’s Abby VanderKooi runs during her first state final cross country meet. Photo/Randy Riksen

While people who don’t follow cross country may be stunned by VanderKooi’s accomplishment, her coach is not.

She’s only failed to finish first in a race once this season, and the times she has posted throughout the fall made it clear she was among the best in Michigan.

“Yeah, definitely,” said WMC cross country coach Kevin Aardema, when asked if he expected VanderKooi to win the state title in her first try. “All the times (that runners across the state post) are on the website, athletic.net, and she had the fastest time of the season by well over a minute.”

Aardema said he’s known for some time that VanderKooi was going to be special when she hit high school and joined the varsity.

“Her older sister runs on the team, so we knew she was coming a year ago or so,” the coach said. “She comes from a running family. She loves to run and she’s a super hard worker.”

Aardema said he first saw hard evidence of VanderKooi’s potential last November at the Turkey Trail Run at Hoffmaster State Park. While the event is recreational in nature, VanderKooi finished first among the women and girls in the race.

“She blew away the field as an eighth-grader,” Aardema said. “She beat the number one boy on our team by more than a minute. That’s when we really knew, oh boy, she’s really fast.”

The other top WMC runners on Saturday were Josie Aardema, who was 23rd overall among runners in the team competition with a time of 20:56.3. Ava Rotman was 29th with a 21:18.3, Sarah VanderKooi was 32nd with a 21:21 and Natalie Riksen was 114th with a 23:33.1

The third-place finish at state was the best in the history of the WMC girls cross country program, according to Aardema.