By Andrew Johnson

Great sports programs produce outstanding teams and win championship trophies, year after year.

That describes the Hart girls and Fremont boys cross country teams.

And super-talented, dedicated athletes will always shine, with a team or on their own. That describes Western Michigan Christian’s Abby VanderKooi.

They all added another chapter to their outstanding legacies last Saturday by winning state championships at the Michigan High School Athletic Association cross country finals at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.

It was the third straight Division 3 championship for the Hart girls, who have reached the point where they can claim dynasty status. It was the second straight Division 4 individual title for VanderKooi, who is only a sophomore and has the talent to end up being a four-time state champion.

Fremont won its first Division 2 state title since 2015. but the Packers have been among the elite teams in Michigan for years.

Their accomplishments last weekend were a testament to sustained excellence, brought on by hard work, dedication and an adherence to high standards.

Hart girls complete a three-peat

During the celebration on Saturday, Hart girls cross country coach Terry Tatro was asked if winning ever gets old.

He had a simple response.

Hart’s MacKenzie Stitt runs during the state finals at MIS Speedway. Photo/Randy Riksen

“It feels awesome,” said Tatro, whose team had a score of 77 points, a whopping 56 points ahead of second-place Shepherd. “How could it possibly get old?”

The Hart program has had its share success over the years, but three straight state titles has brought the Pirates to an entirely new level.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Tatro, who just completed his 21st season as coach. “We’ve had some really good teams. Our program has always been pretty successful, but not to this point. In the last five years or so, it seems like we’ve been getting the right kids with the right attitude and work ethic.”

Three of the kids who helped Hart reach this pinnacle – Savannah Ackley, Audrianna Enns and Lynae Ackley – just happen to be cousins. Savannah finished fourth overall in the state title race, Audrianna was fifth and Lynae took 14th.

“They’re great,” said Tatro about the cousins. “They’re really hard-working kids. Our program starts in the summer, and Savannah really kind of sets the standard. But you never really know who is going to come in first, they all switch back and forth. It’s really interesting having those three because it’s really just a roll of the dice.”

Rounding out the Hart scorers in the finals were MacKenzie Stitt, who finished 38th, and Brenna Aerts, who finished 49th.

Having won the state title in 2017 and 2018, the team did feel some extra pressure this fall, according to Tatro.

“I could tell this year that we had a lot of expectations in our community and the cross country community,” the coach said. “I think the expectations put a lot of pressure on the girls. They were a little more nervous this year than the last two.

“They were a lot quieter and more nervous knowing that everyone figured they were going to win it. Anything can happen at state. You just have to do the work all season long, and these girls sure did.”

The lone senior on the Hart team was Aerts. That means four out of five runners will be returning next fall, making the Pirates instant candidates for a four-peat.

“We’ll lose Brenna and we’ll miss her, but we’ve got some really good middle-schoolers coming up,” Tatro said. “It’s quite possible that we could even have a stronger team next year.”

Fremont boys regain state glory

The Fremont boys cross country team had high expectations coming into 2019, due to its very promising performance last fall.

Fremont finished second at the 2018 state finals, only 13 points behind first-place Chelsea. The entire team was comprised of sophomores, plus one freshman, so it’s fair to say that the Packers were poised for great things this season.

“It’s fantastic to be able to seize the moment,” said Fremont Coach Clifton Somers. “We were close last year with pretty much the same group. To capitalize on the opportunity that was in front of us is special. It’s kind of a hard thing to understand what it means to win a state title. You have to be in the right shape and have a good day, on the right day.”

Fremont’s Adam Ward (left) and Ben Paige during last Saturday’s state finals.

If anyone knows about being a state champion, it’s Somers, who has now won titles as a runner for Fremont, as a coach for Fremont, and now as the father of a Fremont runner.

“It was special,” said Somers about having his son Conor Somers on the team, and watching him finish eighth overall on Saturday. “To share that moment with my son was really special. He’s been very coachable, which he wasn’t in middle school when I coached him in other sports. He struggled a little bit with dad as coach, but he’s really matured out of that, and he’s been really perceptive.”

The coach said a lot of credit for his son’s development goes to junior Nathan Walker, who led the Packers in the state finals by finishing fourth overall.

“He’s played a big role,” Somers said about Walker, who finished with a time of 15:23.9 on Saturday. “He’s encouraged Conor and invited him to run with him, which really helped Conor get better. Nathan does a great job overall. He’s really a force behind us being competitive and not fearing anybody else. He’s a sincere, encouraging guy to everyone on the team, and the kids really respect that.”

Rounding out the Fremont scorers on Saturday were Adam Ward who finished 18th, Ben Paige who finished 20th, and Mikko Vesma, the lone senior, who finished 36th.

“That’s not something that happens very often,” said Somers about his team finishing with five runners in the top 36. “That is pretty special to have that. Our goal was to have five in the top 30 and we just missed out on that. But they all worked hard during the season, and Adam Ward and Ben Paige really came on strong during the second half of the season.”

With most of the team returning next season, people in the Fremont community may be looking ahead to a possible repeat, but the coach isn’t ready to think about that just yet.

“I told the guys that they have to take some time to enjoy this, and not worry about what’s going to happen next year, because it’s a long ways off,” he said. “Yes, championships are won in the offseason, but you also need to stop and enjoy this. You can get burned out if you don’t.”

WMC runner stays on track for four titles

When it comes to domination at the individual level, VanderKooi takes the prize. She won her second straight individual state title as sophomore on Saturday and remains on pace to win four titles in four years.

Abby VanderKooi leads with no one close at Saturday’s state finals. Photo/Randy Riksen

And she made it look easy.

VanderKooi finished with a time of 18:11.0, a full 1:11.7 ahead of the second-place runner, Riley Ford of Marlette.

But VanderKooi is an athlete who pushes herself hard, and she wasn’t completely satisfied with the way she ran the state championship race. In last year’s run, on the same course, she finished with a time of 17:47.3.

“This year I wasn’t very happy with it,” she said. “I mean, I was still happy to win, but the time wasn’t nearly what I had hoped for.”

VanderKooi said her state title run was an extension of the way she ran near the end of the season – and she is not satisfied with that.

“Recently I’ve been running slower,” she said. “It’s kind of scary and annoying. It’s frustrating and I’m wondering if I’m losing motivation a little bit, because I never have anyone to race against and nothing to strive for.”

She may have a point. While most runners strive to beat their nearest competition, VanderKooi typically runs against the clock, because nobody at the high school Division 4 level can keep pace with her.

“It’s just how I’ve kind of always had to do it,” she said. “I just wish I had someone to chase. I even wish sometimes that I was in a higher division.”

Despite the slower time this year, VanderKooi admits that winning another state title is a great feeling.

“It’s always exciting,” she said. “It’s fun to win state because it’s a big deal. I’ve been really blessed by God to be able to win. To even be healthy enough to run is a blessing.”

She said she felt a sense of relief when she crossed the finish line.

“I just thought hallelujah, I’m done,” VanderKooi said. “The last 1,000 meters around the stadium really just killed me. The footing was horrendous and you can’t get good footing all through there. I really lost motivation in the last part, so I was pretty happy to be done.”

After winning two titles in her first two years, VanderKooi has already set her sights on going four-for-four in her cross country career.

“I really want to do it,” she said. “It’s definitely my goal. I’m already trying to get over this win and get back into training for it.”

The top 30 runners in each of the four divisions at the state meet won All-State honors. The following are area runners who accomplished that feat on Saturday:

Division 2 Boys

Nathan Walker, Fremont, 15:23.9

Conor Somers, Fremont, 16:01.5

Adam Ward, Fremont, 16:2

Ben Paige, Fremont, 16:23.9

Callen Carrier, Spring Lake, 16:26.7

Ian Hill, Spring Lake, 16:31.9

Division 3 boys

Alex Enns, Hart, 16:20.3

Division 2 girls

Ryann Jibson, Whitehall, 18:55.8

Taylor Mater-Gerth, Fremont, 18:57.2

Division 3 girls

Savannah Ackley, Hart, 18:49.0

Audrianna Enns, Hart, 18:56.2

Lynae Ackley, Hart, 19:26.2

Isabella Lindsay, North Muskegon, 19:27.0

Layla Martini, Kent City, 19:30.8

Division 4 girls

Abby VanderKooi, WMC, 18:11.0