By Nate Thompson

GRAND HAVEN – Grand Haven cross country coaches John Tarr and Scott Przystas can’t ask for more from their runners than to be at their best in the closing stretch of the season.

That was clearly on display on Oct. 28 at Allendale High School at the Division 1 regional meet, when the Bucs’ boys and girls teams finished first and second, respectively, and individually, Seth Norder and Valerie Beeck each took medalist honors in the boys and girls races.

The Bucs will look to take it one step further on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, where it’s a distinct possibility that both the boys and girls squads could finish in the Top 5 of the overall standings.

Quite frankly, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Seth Norder leads the way during the Division 1 regional cross-country race. Photo/Kim Karr

“As a coach, if I can get our seniors to compete in their very last race at MIS, that’s just icing on the cake,” said Przystas, who started as an assistant with the program in 2011, the last time the Bucs won a state title. “Twenty-two of the last 24 seasons, we’ve had representation at the (state finals), so there’s a lot of tradition there.”

Tarr holds the Bucs’ boys in the same high regard. He’s entering Saturday’s main event thinking his team has a great shot at winning a state championship.

“I hate saying that we’re going to win, but I think we have the best shot we’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s just a group of really competitive guys. They’ve taken every workout we’ve thrown at them and we’re really healthy. But it all boils down to who comes out and executes.”

Norder eyes top finish

The expectations were sky high for Seth Norder entering his senior season of cross country.

Considering his name is plastered all over the Grand Haven record books in both track and cross country, the stage was set for Norder to go out with a bang.  

But Norder, who has committed to Michigan State University to compete in both sports, had to overcome some injury obstacles this fall.

Grand Haven coach John Tarr said an early-season back issue set Norder behind, causing him to lose his first meet to a talented runner from East Grand Rapids.

Valerie Beeck runs on her path to winning the Division 1 regional cross-country race. Photo/Kim Karr

He also battled through illness, which cost him the medalist honors at the second O-K Red Conference Jamboree, as he fell to Jenison’s Seth Conner.

Lastly, he had a nagging foot injury that slowed his performance and training.

“I’ve been talking to his coaches at Michigan State, just getting an idea on what we should throw at him,” Tarr said. “Part of the (injuries) may be to the increase in mileage that we’ve had him training at, along with the intensity of the work. But he’s overcome all of that and I think he’s back in top form now. He won the Portage (Cross Country Invitational), which put him on top of Division 1, since it’s such a huge in-season meet. Then he won another O-K Red championship. He’s the only runner ever to have won three titles in a row, which is amazing to think about considering all the great runners that have competed in this conference.”

At the regional meet, Norder finished in an outstanding 14:48.12, which was just three seconds off his school record time set last season.

Norder said he’s been thinking about his last hurrah at MIS for quite some time.

“It would mean a lot to me (to win an individual title),” he said. “I’ve finished second the last 2 years, so I’ve been thinking about winning it for the last 365 days.”

Team-wise, Norder said this group of Bucs stands out because of their competitive nature top to bottom. At regionals, the Bucs were victorious overall due to the ability of senior Roman Smith, junior Ben Eisnor and freshman Luka Hammond to run and push one another as a group. They finished sixth, seventh and eighth, which was vital in clinching the regional championship. Add in junior Carson Berko, who finished 18th at regionals, and the Bucs’ strength in numbers will be the deciding factor in potential state championship glory.

Seth Norder

“They all work together so well, and if one of them is able to make a move and finish 10 or more spots higher than was expected, that will be crucial for us,” Norder said.

Beeck’s confidence continues to grow

Prior to this season, Scott Przystas could have called junior Valerie Beeck an 800-meter track standout who just happens to also run cross country.

That label might have changed this fall, as Beeck has established herself as a force in cross country after winning the Division 1 regional race and helping the Bucs’ girls finish second overall.

“I coached her in middle school track, and then in high school, competing in the O-K Red, which is a super competitive league,” Przystas said. “As a sophomore, she started to focus on the 800 and she had a 2:12 PR, so the talent is obviously there.

Valerie Beeck

“Coming into this fall, we’ve really seen her come out of her shell and try some different things. She has a lot of confidence in her ability. When she gets to the 2-, 2-½ mile mark, she has all the confidence in her closing kick. She believes in herself.”

The key, Przystas said, was convincing Beeck to keep that aggressive mindset throughout the entire race.

“There’s been a learning curve,” he said. “It’s like, ‘If you get passed, what do you do? She’s shown a lot of growth in running complete races.”

Beeck said she gained a ton of confidence after winning the first O-K Red Conference Jamboree at Rockford, and she eventually finished second in the final league standings.

“Coming into this season, I knew a lot of people had graduated, so (the underclassmen) had a chance to be the top dogs this year,” Beeck said.

Those top dogs included sophomore Cianah Budnik-Ramos and junior Addy Smith, who finished third and fourth, respectively, at regionals, as well as junior Abi Albright, who placed 18th. Grand Haven also had a strong showing from senior Payton Hosley, who took 19th.

“We’re definitely a close team, and we really strive at pumping each other up,” Beeck said. “If our fourth and fifth runners bring their A-games to a race, we have a great chance to finish strong as a team.”

With the massive crowds in attendance at MIS, Beeck said competing at the state finals is “crazy,” but she still has some lofty goals.

“I’m hoping to get a PR. I want to break into the 17 (minute mark), but we’ll see,” she said. “I’d also love to finish in the top 15.”

Grand Haven’s 2023, boys and girls cross country teams. Back row (L-R) Kaden Todtz, Aron Gal, Ben Eisnor, Luka Hammond, Seth Norder, Roman Smith, Liam Schamper, Owen Cross, Carson Berko. Front row (L-R) Addy Smith, Cianah Budnick-Ramos, Gracey Barry, Payton Hosely, Valerie Beeck, Abi Albright, Laurel Tolliver.