On Saturday, the Western Michigan Christian student ran the fifth-fastest time ever by a freshman at an MHSAA state finals girls race while winning the Division 4 individual title with a time of 17:47.3 at the Michigan International Speedway.
"I remember last year looking at the winning time, and it was like an 18:15," VanderKooi said, referring to 2017 Division 4 state champion Samantha Saenz of Concord's 18:16.8. "I remember thinking that I could do that."
During the season, VanderKooi broke 17 minutes three times, and ran as fast as 16:57.3 at the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association Invitational on Oct. 12.
That made her set her sights on the MHSAA state finals record of 16:52.1 set during the 2017 Division 2 race by Olivia Theis of Lansing Catholic.
VanderKooi knew just after the gun went off to start Saturday's race that that record would be tough to reach.
"I really wanted to beat the record," she said. "That was a little disappointing, but it was really muddy. My teammate Josie Aardema lost her shoe like four steps into the race."
VanderKooi wound up also narrowly missing the Division 4 record of 17:44.9 set by Kirsten Olling of Breckenridge in 2013.
But she did lead her Western Michigan Christian team to a third-place finish among 27 teams who advanced from regional competition the previous weekend.
"I would never have imagined that," VanderKooi said. "We knew we wouldn't beat (runner-up) Saugatuck or (state champion Mt. Pleasant) Sacred Heart, because they've got a lot more power than us. That was awesome and a big surprise. I didn't realize that was even possible."
Other finishers for the Warriors were senior Josie Aardema at 38th in 20:56, freshman Ava Rotman 47th in 21:18, senior Sarah VanderKooi 50th in 21:21, sophomore Natalie Riksen 168th in 23:33, and junior Emma Visker 222nd in 25:38.
The Western Michigan Christian boys team earned a sixth-place finish. Senior Jack Zuidema missed All-State honors — awarded to the top 30 finishers — by just 13 seconds while placing 32nd in 17:29. Senior Eli Rotman took 50th in 17:48, junior Ben Garretson 69th in 18:03, sophomore Pierce Newell 99th in 18:24, sophomore Tyler Gould 135th in 18:48, junior Caleb Croff 168th in 19:13, and junior Daniel Plaisier 177th in 19:20.
HYLEN BROTHERS FINISH TOP 10
In the Division 2 boys race, seniors Andrew and Ben Hylen took seventh place in 16:03 and eighth in 16:04, respectively, to help Spring Lake (with 199 points) edge Zeeland West (201) and Otsego (202) for third place as a team.
"Top 10 was the goal for both my brother and I," Ben said. "I went out a little too fast. I felt really good, and I was in the top five for the first mile. I faded back a bit in the second mile, and started to die during the third mile. My brother ended up catching me in the final stretch. I hung through with him and tried to finish strong."
Also for the Lakers, sophomore Callen Carrier came in 70th in 17:00, freshman Ian Hill 93rd in 17:07, senior Matthew Vanderwall 106th in 17:12, senior Jack Leech 184th in 18:04, and sophomore Tyler Munch 220th in 18:41.
"Back in cross country camp during the summer, we set a goal to finish third in the state," Ben Hylen said. "Last year's 13th was a place we did not want to get again. We set a goal that made us go hard all season and push to get us there. We ended up getting it by two points -- which is crazy."
Two Fruitport males qualified for the state meet as individuals by placing among the top 15 finishers at regionals. Senior Brendan Deneen took 58th at state in 16:55, and junior Jon Wildey 67th in 16:58.
For the Spring Lake girls, junior Julia Bajt came in 62nd place in Division 2 in 19:52.
HENTEMANN EARNS ALL-STATE HONORS
For the Grand Haven girls, senior Gabby Hentemann finished eighth in 18:07 to earn All-State honors and senior Abby Buitenhuis took 113th in 19:45.
"To be able to come back for the second year in a row and be top 10 was really incredible for me," said Hentemann, who ran 17:58 while also finishing eighth a year ago. "I was coming off this summer when I didn't get to run a lot of miles because I had a stress fracture (in the right foot). I spent the first half of my summer in rehab with no running, and then the second half was really low mileage just kind of easing back into training."
The Grand Haven boys placed 21st as a team in Division 1. Senior Dominic Weatherwax came in 79th in 16:40, senior Andrew Ireland 131st in 17:03, sophomore Cole Rowden 133rd in 17:03, senior Kyle Eveland 141st in 17:04, senior Aidan Martin 197th in 17:39, senior Nathan Wolffis 217th in 17:59, and freshman Ben Pease 240th in 18:32.
The field conditions severely limited the Bucs, as the final race of the day left the running surface battered and worn-out.
"Our boys ran a frustrating race under extremely difficult conditions," said Grand Haven head coach John Tarr. "The starting boxes between 18-32 were mired in deep mud that extended across the middle part of the straightaway and out for about 250 meters.
"I'd feel differently about the situation if every team had to deal with the same conditions but starting boxes 3 through 15 and 32-38 were packed hard and dry allowing those teams to get out fast. The MHSAA has to re-think MIS as a running venue; it's an awful place to run for many reasons. They wouldn't play the football finals on the cow pasture we were forced to run on Saturday.
"This meet was tough to accept, especially considering how good this group of runners has been for four straight years, but as I said to them, this one race doesn't define your season or your career. We've had a lot of success with these guys. Our seniors have won two regional championships, and an O-K Red Championship, and they have finished no less than second in the region and the conference for four straight years. This is probably the best four-year group of guys this program has ever had."