The theme for the 2017 Spring Lake cross country season was dedication. The season began with defining what a dedicated team member looks, acts and runs like, and each runner committing wholeheartedly to that identity.
Since then, the Lakers have flourished, establishing success across the board and a team atmosphere prime for producing an exciting postseason. Both the boys and girls teams captured O-K Blue Conference titles, and finished in the top three of their regional championship meets to earn team-berths to the Division 2 state championship meet this Saturday at Michigan International Motor Speedway.
There, on the straights and infield of a colossal racetrack, the Lakers will look to finish off their seasons in style. Both teams hope to finish in the top 10 overall, but trust their hard work over a long season will push them into upper echelon of state competition.
The Laker boys’ team captured their second conference title in as many years in the league this fall, establishing themselves as premiere local contenders. They went on to finish second at the regional championships, giving them a chance to better their 12th-place finish from 2016.
The program is a far cry from its state just four years ago, when low turnout and less fun had them fighting to even sniff the big dance at MIS.
“A lot can be said for the friendship and loyalty of our teammates. The team was really small our freshman year, when we came in it started to get a little more fun and that started drawing more guys in,” senior captain Will Brown said. “With that came more talent on the team, which has contributed to our success.”
“At first, it was just about getting to state,” senior captain Andrew Sellon said. “For a while, the boys team didn’t have much success, so it was about getting there. Then we placed 12th and the goal changed to just going higher and higher.
“Each year we got a theme to follow, for this year it was dedication. I think it changed our mindset, focusing on this theme that is going to be incorporated into everything we are doing. With our themes and quality training, we were able to turn the program into a contender at state.”
All the development has a final chance to manifest in a fast day of running. The boys have had their sights set all season long, and will settle for nothing less than excellence.
“We set out to accomplish our goal of top five at state, we are currently ranked ninth,” senior captain Cameron Thalhammer said. “We would like to continue pushing and striving for greatness. We have done that all year across the board. Now, anything in the top 10 would be great to finish off the year.”
Leading the way for the Lakers has been junior standout twins Andrew and Ben Hylen. Andrew has functioned as Spring Lake’s No. 1 runner all year, taking on the lead pack with extreme mental fortitude. His speed and mental command routinely keep him in contention for medalist honors, regardless of the stage. Ben has been battling through injury, but has managed to stick with his brother, holding the No. 2 spot for the Lakers.
“Andrew has a really strong mental game, and is a heck of a student of the sport,” boys head coach Erin Carmody said.
“He is very good at analyzing conditions of the race and setting his own goals. When he gets his mind to it, there is no question. Running to him is genuinely fun, he is great at challenging himself and pushing himself and his pack of guys to be the best they can be.”
At the regional championship, the brothers finished third and fourth overall, with just six seconds between them. Thalhammer came in 15th, while Matthew Vanderwall, Jack Leech, Will Brown and Callen Carrier rounded out the runner-up team in 24th, 31st, 38th and 47th, respectively.
The regional race provided strong evidence the boys will accomplish their goals, as they put their hard work and team running strategy on display. Now, tightening those gaps is their final challenge to address.
“I think that has been the direction we have been heading in all season long,” Carmody said. “Getting our Nos. 5-7 to be really tight and to get Nos. 3 and 4 to start to close the gap behind the Hylens. We are starting to see that goal achieved.
“Our expectations are that the guys go out and have fun and enjoy the moment because they worked really hard to get here. My other hope and expectation is top 10, but top five would be great.”
The lady Lakers have historically more success than their male counterparts, but not as much in recent years. A third-place finish at the regional and team bid to the state finals validated a groundswell of young talent, giving some promising young runners a chance to shine as one this weekend.
“It has been a few years since we have been to state as a team,” girls head coach Aaron Andres said. “Last year, we had 12 freshmen, five on varsity, and a lot of those girls were in their first season of cross country. Now, they are all a year older with more races under their belts.”
The team put on a show at the conference meet, breaking out to defeat perennial-powerhouse Allendale for the title, an accomplishment that seemed easier said than done for the Lakers. The Falcons would get revenge at the regional meet, but Spring Lake had proved they belong among the top teams in the state.
“I can sit and talk all day about numbers and times, it makes it so much easier as a coach when you beat a team like that, because it is no longer hypothetical, it is real,” Andres said. “To have that and then finally have a regionals where they put it together is fun to see.”
Putting it together for the Lakers meant textbook pack running. With so much new, undeveloped talent rising through the ranks, the girls have found a knack for pushing each other on the course, both in practice and competition.
“We have been getting faster and faster each week, which has been fun to see all year long,” Andres said. “As a group, we are really strong together. We have had five different girls be my No. 1 runner over the season. The pack is our strength.
“Our gap between Nos. 2 and 5 is 20 seconds, that has been fun to see. We train really well together, so it is good to see it translate.”
Even with a group of solid rising runners, every standout team needs a star. Sophomore Julia Bajt has emerged for the Lakers as their frontrunner, recently asserting herself as a lead-pack competitor.
At last week’s regional, the plan was stick with Grand Rapids Christian, a team with comparable runners to the Lakers across the board, who would be competing for one of the three state championship spots. Bajt had bigger plans.
“She said, ‘What about Kori from Allendale?’, who was ranked No.1 going into the race,” Andres said. “I asked her if she really felt comfortable gunning for that, and she just said, ‘Yes, I want it.’
“I saw her about 1.5 miles into the race. Kori had gone out really fast, a five-minute first mile, and Julia was shoulder to shoulder with her, I told her to smile and she shot back a big smile, and I knew she was good and exactly where she needed to be.”
Bajt would finish in second-place overall, two places and 13 seconds ahead of her adversary. Maggie Cooper, Chloe Lohman, Eva Tilton, Kate Gilchrist, Elizabeth Penrice and Maddy Winburg rounded out the regional team, all finishing between 12th and 25th place.
After running solo at last year’s state finals, Bajt will welcome the support of her teammates, while they will look to their No. 1 runner, as well as Gilchrist, who appeared at the state finals as a freshman, for guidance on the sports biggest stage.
“Everything is huge there, the final straight is 800 meters,” Andres said. “To have runners who have experienced that helping the girls to understand how big this place is will be nice, and for Julia to have someone familiar to race will go a long way.
“The course is built for pack running. I think the girls have a better shot at competing when they have the other girls on their team pushing them. You don’t know how fast that girl in yellow near you is running. Everyone on the team has a pretty good idea of where they are just by staying together.”
If all goes according to plan, the girls hope to place inside the top 10, ideally top seven, to make the front page of the results program.
“It is all about having fun,” Andres said. “It is a great experience. Anywhere in the top 10 would be great, higher is icing on the cake. We like to shoot for the front page of the meet.”
With so many dedicated athletes and a grueling season of work behind them, the Spring Lake cross country teams are ready to burn rubber at MIS on Saturday.