BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — When Benzie Central cross country coach Asa Kelly was leaving the Portage Invitational on Saturday, he told his friend, Grandville Calvin Christian coach Laurens TenKate, "see you in a few weeks."
It appears the two schools are on a collision course Nov. 3 at the state meet.
Calvin Christian is ranked No. 1 in Division 3 — in both girls and boys. The Benzie girls are No. 2, the boys No. 3.
"That was the first time this year I felt really confident about both of our teams," Kelly said. "We're coming along nicely.
"Saturday was a real positive. (Our runners) know what they have to do to make that jump."
The girls, in particular. Benzie finished eight points behind Calvin Christian for the second week in a row.
"We ran a much better race," Kelly said. "It just came down to a couple points again."
Benzie returned five of its top seven runners off last fall's state championship team. But the lineup now includes four newcomers — two transfers and two freshmen. It's taken the team time to adjust.
"The girls are finally starting to mesh as a group," Kelly said. "They're starting to have fun together. Part of that is with new girls coming in, they don't really know each other. Today I was watching 11 or 12 girls run together and laughing, having a good time. That's what you want to see at this point of the season. They get along. They're looking out for each other. They're a team. That's what we've been stressing from day one. We're doing this as a team. It doesn't matter who the top runner is. Our team goal always supersedes individual goals."
The Huskies top runner, by the way, is junior Alyssa Bennett, a transfer from Cass City. She was sixth Saturday in a time of 18:51.
"She's been running great," Kelly said. "It's a different level for her this year. Last year she didn't break 20 minutes. This year she's running in the 18s pretty consistently. She's learning how to compete with the top girls in the state week in and week out."
Another junior, Bryce Cutler, cut 43 seconds off her time from the previous week.
Benzie's top five are all juniors. The other transfer is Sarah Jones, who ran at Capac previously.
"Her brother (Rick) ran for us a few years ago," Kelly said. "He was our No. 1 guy on a state title team."
Calvin Christian finished eighth last season, but returned six of its top seven runners.
"They made a big jump from last fall to this fall," Kelly said. "We told our team at practice (Monday), 'No way is this going to be a blowout (at state meet). It's going to come down to which team has the better day, and, maybe, which team's fifth runner has the better day.' That's how close it could be."
Two other teams that had strong showings at Portage were the Traverse City Central girls and boys. The girls placed third overall.
"Very much needed," Central coach Lisa Taylor said. "I knew we were a team of that caliber. Our last big meet was MSU. I walked away from that meet (11th place) thinking, 'Man, I've got to get these girls to run with more confidence because I know they have the conditioning and ability to be much farther up than they were.' At Portage, our focus was to have all five of our (counters) medal and get a score under 200. If we could do that, we could be one of the top teams there. The girls fully executed. It was a great day. They got to see what they're capable of doing."
The Trojans finished ahead of three top 10 teams — Brighton, Grandville and Hudsonville.
Central's top five of Ashley Ko, Jordan Mattarella, Graceanne Tarsa, Katies Moses and Joy Reist finished just 28 seconds apart.
The boys came in sixth in a field that included the No. 2 ranked team in Ohio.
"It was a good showing," Trojan coach John Lober said. "The kids ran well down there. It was a pretty good test."
Central's top three — Anthony Berry, Kyle Dotterrer and Cam McAuliffe — crossed the finish line four seconds apart.
Central's fourth runner, Nicholas Tarsa, told Lober he got boxed in during the race.
"He said, 'I know I can run a lot faster than that.'" Lober said. "That was good to hear because he's normally closer to our first three guys."
Lober likes how his team is coming together.
"There are a lot of variables in having a great team," he said. "You have to have good leadership, which we have; you have to have talented kids; they've got to be willing to do the work. There are so many factors. Health is an issue. You get a kid hurt here or there ... we've been through that before. So far, cross our fingers, things have been working out pretty good this year."