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Spring Lake boys cross country team ready to raise the bar again

Josh VanDyke • Nov 5, 2016 at 4:00 AM

Last fall, the Spring Lake boys cross country team was fueled all season by falling two points short of qualifying for the state finals the year prior.

The battle cry in 2015 was “redeem” because the team felt they fell short of their ultimate goal. They achieved that goal and then some, finishing 10th as a team at the final race of the season.

This year’s team decided they weren’t going to be content with simply making the state finals. They wanted more, so they deemed themselves – “relentless.”

“Our theme last year was ‘redeem’,” said Spring Lake boys coach Jennifer Gwinn. “That was about achieving a goal that we hadn’t quite reached yet, in making it to state. This year our theme is ‘relentless,’ because we needed to continue to work hard and improve every time we train and every time we race. I felt like that theme meant that we would have constant improvement no matter what we were facing or who we were racing.

“The tone of the team this year has been incredible. I feel like everybody took training and racing really seriously. As individuals, as well as a group, they all wanted to have that constant improvement. We were always striving for the best that we could. A lot of guys were finding their limits and really pushing themselves to be their very best, which is what it was all about.”

To Gwinn, the biggest difference between this year’s squad and last year’s squad is the attitude.

“I think talent-wise, it’s similar,” she said of the comparison. “I think the tone is a little bit more serious overall this year. As a coach, this season has been really enjoyable, and it seems like the season just flew by. I really enjoyed being around the team this year. Of course, its fun to win, and we did that a lot and brought a lot of trophies home from almost every single race we attended. So, it was a fun season, because everybody had a great attitude and we won a lot.

“We had more guys training over the summer to prepare for this season than there were a year ago. I think a lot of guys set a lot of personal goals that required that summer training and the level of dedication this year was definitely on point for almost every single individual.”

The team’s growth coincided with Gwinn’s growth as a coach.

“The training was the same for the most part, but I think one big thing is that I’m three years into it now, so I know what I’m doing more, and I know how to facilitate that a little bit better,” she added. “I think the biggest thing is really just that they have invested more time in themselves and they want it more and more and they see the benefit of their hard work with the results.”

The Lakers are led by sophomore Andrew Hylen, who set the Spring Lake school record at last weekend’s regional race with a time of 16 minutes, 6 seconds.

“It feels almost normal now, because I beat the original record last year, so I’m just trying to beat my own record now,” Hylen said. “I really wanted to train harder, so I could have more fun running this season, and I feel like my hard work is paying off.”

Hylen participated in local events such as the Brainy Days run, the Coast Guard 10k and the Spring Lake Heritage Festival run.

“I really wanted to go out and do some fun runs, and see how I would do in them,” Hylen said of the offseason races. “Those races helped me prepare for this season at the same time. Running is just fun for me. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, so I wanted to sign up for a few local races in the community and test myself a little bit.”

Like the collective team behind him, Hylen wants to continue to be relentless and improve on what he has already accomplished at today’s state final race at 1:30 p.m. at the Michigan International Speedway.

“My goal is to get into the 15s (minutes),” he said. “My last time (at regionals) was a 16:06, so I was pretty close to that. I’d be happy with a top 30 finish. I was 46 last year.”

For senior Joe Negen, just the thought of getting back to the state final was enough motivation.

“Just the thought of running in Brooklyn in November is what got me through a lot of long, hot runs in the summer,” he said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘just gotta get there, just gotta get there’, so that we could have the chance to represent our school again, as well as our team, our coaches, our families and representing them well again. It was great to achieve what we did last year, but we wanted to do it again, and do it better. We needed to build on that success, and I think we have.”

The Lakers faced an unknown obstacle this fall in the O-K Blue Conference. The team was undeterred, however, as they won all three conference events to claim the league in its first season as a member.

“The O-K Blue Conference was a fun new challenge for us,” Negen added. “We won a lot, so that was fun and exciting. It was fun to run against some new teams and new runners, so that’s always a good thing.”

For Negen, the motivation to run is the rewards of challenging yourself.

“Running isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding,” he said. “I run for my teammates, and I run because it’s not something that’s not easy to do. That’s what makes it worthwhile for me, though. If it was easy, everybody would do it. It’s the challenge that’s really exciting for me.”

In his last race as a cross country runner, Negen hopes to cross the finish line with a new personal best time.

“I’d love to run in the 17:30s on Saturday,” he said. “I want to set another personal record to send off my senior season and my cross country career on a high note.”

Fellow senior Matthew Schmidt is motivated by seeing the instant rewards for his hard work.

“I run for the feeling afterwards,” he said. “The rewards of seeing a new time or a new record go up as you pass the finish line. That’s what appeals to me with running.”

Schmidt had one of his best races of his career at last year’s state final, and wants to continue that trend today.

“I really want to break 17 minutes, and possibly get into the 16s one more time,” he said. “Last year at states, I ran a 16:56, so I’d really like to get back in that range again.”

Coach Gwinn believes there is plenty of room for improvement within her squad and thinks today’s meet will bring out the true relentless nature of her runners.

“I think there are several guys on this team that don’t know where their limits truly are yet,” she said. “I would like them to run without fear of the pain and being uncomfortable. I would like to see all of them push all the way to their physical limits and feel like they didn’t leave anything out there on the course on Saturday. I think if they do that, they can do really well this year at the state level.”

Freshman Phenom

For the Spring Lake girls cross country team, the fall season has been a youth movement of sorts.

Of the seven runners for the Lakers at last weekend’s regional, six were freshmen. One of those freshmen – Julia Bajt – qualified for today’s state final race as an individual with a time of 20:10.14.

“It was really fun to coach this group because six of our seven runners were freshmen this year,” said Spring Lake girls coach Aaron Andres. “Julia is a 400 (meter) runner for track, and she wasn’t even going to come out for cross country. I told her, ‘you’re coming out for cross country’, and she decided to give it a go.

“You could see she was getting stronger each week, and to see her at the end of the season kind of have that ‘ah ha’ moment was awesome. Now, she’s crossed over to where she’s really getting this distance thing down. It’s really exciting for me, because this is going to lead into all of the young kids being excited about next year, and we’re excited for the next few years.”

Andres views Bajt’s mental toughness as the biggest reason she has seen so much success early in her career.

“She was already mentally strong, and she was already a gritty runner,” he said. “You have to be mentally strong to be a 400 runner. It was really just a matter of her trusting her body for a 5k distance. It takes awhile for that. She didn’t start running 5ks until August, so she didn’t really know how to train distance-wise and a lot of the girls on our team are the same way. They are learning that there is a strategy to it, and that has helped all of them improve.”

With six freshmen already testing themselves at the varsity level, Andres believes that the sky is the limit for this core group.

“The entire group is no where near reaching their ceiling as runners, and that’s what’s exciting,” he said. “It should be a fun year for us next year, and I’m excited to coach this group for the next few years.”

Bajt will cap off her freshman campaign at the Division 2 race at 2:30 this afternoon at the Michigan International Speedway.

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