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Grand Haven cross country teams prepare to make history Saturday

Josh VanDyke • Nov 2, 2017 at 6:00 AM

The Grand Haven boys and girls cross country teams have each enjoyed a unique road to this Saturday's Division 1 state finals race at Michigan International Speedway.

The Grand Haven boys squad has already made their presence known with an upset of Rockford at the O-K Red Conference championships, while the girls are filled with a quiet confidence after battling through numerous injuries to qualify as a team for the final race of the season.

On the boys side, a midseason proclamation shifted the team's goals in a hurry when they won the first O-K Red Conference jamboree of the season.

"I knew we had an opportunity to be a really great this year," said Grand Haven boys head coach John Tarr. "I wasn't sure if we would win the O-K Red Conference, but after we won that first conference jamboree, I started to think, ‘Well, maybe we can do something special here.' After that, we turned our attention toward accomplishing that goal.

"You can't take anything for granted in this part of the state and especially in the O-K Red Conference. We needed three very good races to win the conference, and we were able to do that. We've run tough all year, and I think that's a big reason why we were able to accomplish everything we have so far."

After finishing second in the following conference jamboree, the boys squad ran their best race of the season in the final race on the league schedule, edging Rockford by one point to win an outright share of the league title.

It was the first time in 27 years that the Rams would not earn at least a share of the crown.

"That was one of the best things I've ever been a part of it in my high school career," said senior standout Jack Nicholson. "It was amazing and an absolute miracle. We still don't believe it. We worked hard and it paid off though.

"That's the race that secured us as a team that other people need to look out for."

As a senior, Nicholson can feel the pressure of the situation, but he's prepared to empty the tank Saturday.

"There's a lot of pressure. I want to exceed the expectations before me and leave everything I have out there on the course at the state meet in my final race at the high school level," he said. "We want to have the best finish this program has ever had. We should be able to make the top 10, and I believe we can achieve that if everyone runs hard and pushes themselves."

For Nicholson, a strong finish at MIS would be the final seal of approval on an already impressive career.

"It would help put a stamp on my career," he added. "That's everything I could ask for. As a team, we want to make sure we're one of the best that's ever been here, and I think we can do it.

"We increased our hard workouts early on in the season. We've really ramped up the intensity and that's paid off in our results. We needed guys to train harder and we've really worked hard all season to get to this point. Now we just need to finish strong."

For Tarr, there was some question as to what the team's personality would be this season, after losing a lot of key runners from 2016.

"This has been a really great group of guys to work with. Last year, we lost three really talented runners, and Jack and I talked about what the personality of this year's team was going to be," he added. "We had a lot of nice guys, but I wasn't sure if they were going to be outspoken and hold each other accountable.

"Andrew (Ireland), Nathan (Wolffis) and Aiden (Martin) really stepped into those roles. Jack has really come along as a leader, too. He got guys out to run, he was vocal, and he held guys accountable. He gives the team pep talks before every meet. He led from the first day to the last. I'm really proud of him for growing in that department."

Individual growth has spurred the team's growth this season, and Tarr couldn't be happier to see each of his runners push their limits.

"Cole Rowden is a very strong kid for a freshman," he added. "He's run through all our hard workouts and never complained. Kyle Eveland struggled last year, but this year, he came in more focused and fit and ready to accomplish big things. He plays lacrosse and hockey, too, so he's a great athlete, and he's very competitive. He was huge in us beating Rockford. He was our sixth runner and passed their fifth runner at the very end of the race.

"Andrew Ireland was a soccer kid who came out last year and had a decent track season. He worked his butt off this year. Everything you see from him is due to his work ethic. (Dominic) Weatherwax was our third guy last week, and he was our fifth guy all season. I just kept putting him in the lineup, because I knew he would be ok. They all push each other and they are nice kids, but they are all competitive."

The goal for Saturday is to make history for the Buccaneer boys and Tarr thinks there's a chance for that.

"I think if we run PRs, we could be in the running for our best finish this program has ever had," he said. "I think we could be Top 8. It'll take everyone's best race, but we can do it.

"I'm more confident in this group than I've been with any other team. I know they are focused. I wasn't worried about the regional, even though we didn't win it. They look focused right now and want to do big things on Saturday."

GRAND HAVEN GIRLS ROUNDING INTO FORM

For the Grand Haven girls cross country team, the 2017 season has been a battle of attrition.

The team has seen plenty of success, but injuries throughout the lineup have slowed down their progress and limited the ceiling on a group that set lofty goals heading into the fall.

"We've had a lot of craziness this season, and we've dealt with a lot of injuries," said Grand Haven girls head coach Scott Przystas. "I can count on one hand how many runners I've had in walking boots in past seasons, and we've basically surpassed that mark this season alone.

"The kids have really stepped up though, and every time something would happen or someone would go down, someone else would come in and raise the bar. I knew we had depth, but I wasn't sure how much we would need it or use it. As it turns out, we've needed everyone, and they have all done their part to help the team."

Now with a full bill of health, the Buccaneers are looking forward to proving they are better than advertised.

"We're really excited about this opportunity," said junior standout Gabby Hentemann. "We want to go out there and prove the seeding wrong. We're 15th or 16th right now, but that's because we've had some injuries and bumps in the road this season.

"Now, we've got all our chickens in the coop, and we're finally healthy as a team. Top 10 is definitely a goal. Top 8 isn't out of the questions either. We just want to finish strong though. If we can all get close to our PRs and cross the finish line healthy and happy, that would be a great end to the season for us."

The team saw a flash of its potential at the Allendale Invitational on Sept. 30 when they scored 77 points and pushed O-K Red Conference powerhouse Rockford along the way.

Individually, three Buccaneer runners placed in the top 12, six placed in the top 30 and all seven were in the top 50.

"The Allendale Invite was a really good invite for us. All seven of the varsity runners set new personal best times at the same race," said junior Abby Buitenhuis.

"That's never happened before in the history of the Grand Haven program," added Hentemann.

Przystas wasn't surprised to see his team accomplish the feat, but was happy to see them enjoy some success.

"That race was basically PR city for us," he added. "I wasn't shocked that we did so well, because we had more than a week of solid training and that was the first cooler morning that we've had all season, so that helped us, too. Allendale is a fast course, there was a lot of great competition there, and I think that pushed us that particular day.

"We became one of the fastest teams in program history after that. We knew after that meet that we were a good team, but four of our eight runners got injured, so we were back to the drawing board again."

The team has changed its philosophy from recent seasons, and that has helped spearhead a fresh outlook heading into each race.

"In past seasons, our strategy had been to pack up and try and catch certain girls along the way," said Hentemann. "This year, it's much more oriented around each person doing their part. At the regional, we talked about each person passing someone along the way, and not really being as focused on packing up and passing people.

"If everyone does their part, we know we'll finish well as a team."

For Buitenhuis, a strict dedication to cross country has made her a more efficient and less fatigued contributor to the team this season.

"This is the first season that I haven't been playing soccer at the same time as cross country, so it has affected my times a lot," she said. "My times have been a lot better, I haven't been as a sore, and I'm not nearly as fatigued. I've dropped 40 seconds off my PR this season, and I think that's a big reason why."

After a strong regional performance, Przystas believes his team is beginning to peak at the right time.

"It all came together at regionals," he said. Meadow (White) ran a PR, Jenna Ray ran a PR and Marlie Fraser ran a lifetime PR, too.

"It says a lot about the culture on the team and the kids in the program that we've been able to battle through injuries. We had a gameplan at the regional, and we exceeded that. At the state meet, the top five O-K Red teams are qualified, and we feel like going up against those teams during the regular season should have us prepared for the speed of the state finals.

"Back in August, the girls set some ambitious goals. We wanted to be Top 7 and compete for the O-K Red Championship. We were running without some of our key runners during the conference stretch and fell short. Then, we wanted to qualify at regionals and our depth paid off there.

"We had kids really close gaps and run harder than they ever had before. We are ranked 16th in the state heading in. I told the girls that they have the ability to prove them right or prove them wrong."

The work ethic on the 2017 team combined with the talent level could see a spike in production down the final stretch of the season. Regardless, the program appears to be in good shape.

"It's one of the hardest working teams I've ever had," Przystas added. "They're all learning and are students of the sport. It's a good group, and it's a group that will be mostly returning next year. From a team standpoint, there haven't been much faster.

"Our goal as a program was 23 kids under 23 minutes and seven kids under 19:30. We've already got 32 kids over the 23-minute mark, but we ended up with five under 19:30. We still have Saturday's race to add two more names to that list.

"If everyone PRs, we would be top 10. The girls are mentally ready and they will be prepared for the race. We've had some alumni come in and talk about the state meet and what an honor it is to even run at the event. This is the 18th year in a row that we've qualified as a team. That's a high standard to live up to, but these girls embrace that and want to leave their own mark on the program."

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