The Whitehall boys’ cross-country team poses with coach Kathy Hector after securing its first-ever state finals berth in Division 2 at last Saturday’s regionals, which were held at Benzie Central. The team competed in Saturday’s state finals after the Bea
BENZONIA — Whitehall is one of the smallest schools in Division 2 cross-country. The odds are stacked against the Vikings in terms of numbers. Indeed, no Whitehall team had ever qualified in Division 2, until Saturday.
Whitehall’s boys team finished third in the regionals at Benzie Central, securing a spot in the state finals at Michigan International Speedway.
The finals were run Saturday, Nov. 3 after the Beacon went to press.
Logan Irey led the Vikings with a 13th-place finish at regionals. His time was 16:25.4. Whitehall can thank its depth for its state-finals berth, as the Vikings managed to place five more runners between 20th and 37th. Alex Dennis was 20th, while Keaton Smith was 26th and Brayden Berson 30th. Reiley Brown placed 36th, followed by Tyler Grove.
Despite the historical nature of state qualification, the Vikings were disappointed with their efforts. The team had hoped to place second at regionals, but Gaylord beat them out for the spot.
“Gaylord just ran out of their heads,” Dennis said.
The Vikings have an interesting mix of runners on the team. The two fastest runners at regionals, Irey and Dennis, are new to the team this year, but Irey is a senior while Dennis is a freshman. Most of the other Vikings are cross-country veterans. Coach Kathy Hector said in her experience coaching boys, the bond that has formed within the team is remarkable.
“Normally, it takes guys a year or so before they’ll accept the new guys,” Hector said. “In men-world, you have to earn everything. These guys came in and basically said, ‘We’re here to be serious. We’re here to be fast runners.’ The rest of the guys were like, ‘Sweet. That’s exactly what we needed.’”
Teammate Mitch Boyce called Dennis “the fastest freshman Whitehall’s ever had”. The team is outspoken about being not merely teammates, but friends. Just this last Wednesday, Dennis said, the team went disc-golfing together.
The team being as close as they are, all the Vikings agree, has helped them get better on the course.
“We’re all like a family together,” Irey said. “We’re friends in school. We bring that to athletics. We usually have team dinners right before meets. After team dinners, we have the choice to leave, which none of us do because we like to hang out.”
Whitehall’s success, as is the case with just about any sports team, has been born of hard work in practice. The team members compete almost as well in their daily run as they do when the spotlight comes on.
Hector said the boys are just like any other boys — they don’t want to lose to one another.
“In practice, if Tyler (Grove)’s running fast, the others don’t just let Tyler go,” Hector said. “They’ll chase and kill themselves to keep up. It’s the alpha-male mentality of whoever’s running at the front is best, coolest, fastest. That’s how you get from being a mediocre team to a fast team.”
The friendships that have developed have even translated to a kind of ESP on the course. Irey detailed a race earlier this season in which he and Dennis were up against a Hart runner and, without any communication between them, decided to team up and accelerate past him, then cut him off.
“It was kind of dirty but it definitely helped,” Irey said.
Whitehall’s been aided by remarkable coaching. Hector, of course, is the leader. The team was quick to compliment her for her role in their success. Of course, she’s not the only one.
Keaton Smith, the third-fastest Whitehall runner at regionals, has the fortune to be the son of a marathoner. Mike Smith, his father, competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the event. The elder Smith has helped give the team nuggets of knowledge from his career on the course.
“It’s really cool to have Keaton’s dad as a coach,” Dennis said. “He’s had lots of experience as a runner.”
Saturday, all that experience, friendship and talent will be put to the test as the Vikings run on the Michigan International Speedway course. Smith, the only Viking who has run on the course before, said that it’s different than almost any other course the team has been on.
“This one definitely flows a lot better,” Smith said. “Most courses are just thrown together around a high school, and this one is meant for cross-country.”
Another key difference is the length of the straightaways in the race. The team said the final thousand meters will require all their stores of upper-body strength as the finish line draws near.
The team will also be facing the unfamiliar circumstance of running in a very large race. There will be 250 runners at the state meet.
“The experienced guys know that they’ll have to get out fast and run an oxygen deck the whole race,” Hector said. “They’ll be in a sea of other guys. They won’t have their own space.”
Despite all the newness that comes with Saturday’s race, Dennis said the team is shooting for a top-10 finish at state. They enter the race ranked 19th in Division 2.
“That’s a long shot,” Hector said of her team’s hopes. “They’d have to run out of their heads. I want to see them keep their wits about them. I want to see them race the entire way. I want to see them stay aggressive in the race. I want them to all feel like they’ve given their absolute best.”
No matter where the team placed Saturday, however, they will have already achieved a first in Whitehall athletic history simply by being there. With only three Vikings set to graduate, the 2012 team is hoping to become just the first in a long line of successful Whitehall harriers.
Hector emphasized how proud she was of her team, not just for their accomplishments but simply for being there each day.
“There’s so much that vies for their attention in our culture and in our school, for them to choose something difficult to commit to, I’m so proud of that,” Hector said.
Full coverage of the Vikings’ state-finals run will be available in next week’s Beacon.
Montague boys 11th, girls 12th
ALLENDALE — The Montague boys’ cross-country team placed 11th at the 14-team regional last Saturday at Allendale, ending its season.
The Wildcats were led by Dylan Graber, who plaed 39th with a time of 18:06. Carson Williams placed 46th, while Zach Gaule was 68th. Brennan Zuniga was 69th and Spencer Morse 71st. Noah Verbanick was 89th.
The girls’ team was 12th at the regionals. Kenadee Shugars was Montague’s best finisher, coming in 27th place. Her time of 21:30 missed a state qualification by about a minute. Morgan Shugars came in 60th place, while Jane Dandron was 67th. Kaitlin Adams ran a personal-best 26:55 and placed 85th. Kyla Pineda was 90th.
The Montague teams, which entered the season racked by inexperence and injury, impressed coach Terry Fick with their efforts.
“We only had one (girls) returnee and she started the season hurt, so we had some first-timers who never ran before learn how to run a 5k, then how to race a 5k,” Fick said. “I feel they did a great job, considering how strong our conference is with North Muskegon, MCC and Whitehall.”
“We had some very good races individually, but we couldn’t put five good races together in one race.”
Rockets’ girls 8th at regionals
ALLENDALE — Reeths-Puffer’s girls cross-country team placed eighth at its 14-team regional last Saturday at Allendale.
The Rockets missed having a state qualifier by just under a minute, as Micah Peel came in 28th place at the regional with a time of 20:13.6. McKenzie Richardson finished soon after Peel, placing 33rd.
Emly Cross was 47th, Summer Hussey 48th and Shyanna Archer was 60th for Reeths-Puffer. Naomi Parker placed 65th while Jackie Anderson was 75th.
“The Lady Rockets turned in a nice performance at regionals,” R-P coach Dee Richardson said. “McKenzie Richardson had her best race of the season with a PR of 20:20.”
Reeths-Puffer’s boys could not post a team score, with only three runners at the regional. Nate Harris was the first of the Rocket trio across the line, placing 62nd with a time of 18:40. Noah Kellogg came in 85th and Chris Colbert was 86th.