BY DENNIS CHASE
BENZONIA — They'll meet for a run today, then it's off to Traverse City for facials and manicures, followed by a four-course candlelight dinner at the home of Traci and Asa Kelly.
The Benzie Central girls cross country team earned it.
Benzie captured the Division 3 state championship last month. And, in the process, won a bet jokingly made by coach Asa Kelly, who promised to cook the feast if the girls won the title. While Asa's preparing the dinner tonight, Traci, who coaches with her husband, will bring the team to Traverse City for a little pampering.
Actually, Benzie runners have two reasons to celebrate this holiday season. The Huskies also claimed the Division 3 state track championship in June.
That double is the Record-Eagle's No. 10 local sports story of 2011.
What makes the story, and the accomplishment, even more noteworthy, is that the Huskies pulled it off with two vastly different teams.
Last spring's track team was dominated by seniors. Three — Michaela Carnegie, Taylor Nye and Taylor Wichtner — are currently running at Big Ten schools. By comparison, 20 of the 22 runners on this fall's cross country squad were underclassmen.
"When you lose three Division 1 college athletes and then come back in the fall with a young (cross country) team — we had five sophomores and freshmen in our top seven — and win it after being runner-up the year before that's pretty awesome stuff," Asa Kelly said.
Benzie had also been runner-up in track for two consecutive years before capturing the crown by one point in June. Carnegie led the way, winning the 800 and 1600 individual titles. She also ran on the victorious 3200 relay and the third-place mile relay.
"She was our big hitter," Kelly said. "She had a part in 36 points.
"She's a once in a lifetime kid (for a coach) — an 18-time All-Stater. To have a kid in your school who's an All-Stater, that's an impressive athlete. But 18 All-State awards when you graduate? That's unreal."
Carnegie and her classmates did more than win a state track title, however. They also set the tone — and raised the bar — for the next crop of runners coming up through the system. That, Kelly said, was evident in the fall.
"The attitude (for cross country) was set in track," he said. "The seniors last spring basically said, 'No ifs, ands or buts. We're going to be state champions. We've been runner-up two years in a row. It's time to win it.' Everybody bought into it. And that carried over into the fall.
"Once that attitude gets out there, for lack of a better term, you get addicted to it. You want to get back there (state championship). You get used to it and you want to do it every year. So you do whatever it takes, whether it's getting up a little earlier in the summer for a run or getting up and running when it's cold out and you don't really want to. They put in the time. They worked hard. And they kept each other accountable."
The two seniors on the cross country team, Theresa Warsecke and Amber Peabody, took over the leadership roles. Warsecke became the team's No. 1 runner.
"She exploded this year," Kelly said. "She came out of her shell. She dropped 1:15 off her previous PR in cross. That's incredible.
"We've already been selling it to her that in track this next spring her goal is to run for a state championship."
Warsecke and Peabody have been part of a tremendous run at Benzie. In cross country, the Huskies have state finishes of first, third, second and first over the last four years. In track, Benzie has been second, second and first in the state, heading into what should be another trophy-laden spring season.
"The lowest they've (Warsecke and Peabody) ever finished in cross or track in the state finals is third," Kelly said. "That's all they've ever known — winning."
The Kellys took over a powerhouse program developed by Pete Moss, an ardent supporter of the Kellys.
"Pete did do much to build the program," Kelly said. "We were so fortunate to come into a program that already was going so strong. We took the challenge upon ourselves, how can we breathe our breath of fresh air into it, while at the same time keeping all the traditions alive that he had going?
"When you take over for a legend the pressure is high. The nice thing is he's constantly there with us. He's constantly saying nice things. I think that's the biggest pat on the back we can get. That he likes what we're doing. It's hard, after coaching 40 years, to step down and give it to someone else. It's scary. What if it falls apart? For him, to see us continue to go out and win state titles, get good numbers out and keep it a highly-respected program in the area and state, that means so much. We're so honored we can do that for him, if nothing else."