BROOKLYN, Mich. — Wire to wire.
Benzie Central backed up the No. 1 cross country state ranking it held all season with a Division 3 boys state championship Saturday.
“It made us realize that we were a target,” said junior Kyle Bailey, who led the Huskies with a 14th-place finish to earn all-state honors. “So we had to keep doing our best and keep trying. I think it really helped us out.”
Benzie also took second in girls.
“It’s just a whole community effort,” said Benzie coach Traci Kelly, who guides the team along with her husband, Asa. “Everybody gets the paper Sunday morning each week to see how the kids are doing. We’re constantly getting emails and texts and Facebook messages. It was an amazing day all around.”
Four area runners placed in the top 10, including runner-up Amber Way of Charlevoix in the girls race with a time of 18:04.2.
Kingsley junior Jake Keena took sixth in the boys race with a 16:10.9 time. Manistee’s Annie Fuller and Ashley Lindeman were fourth and seventh, respectively, in 18:51.4 and 18:56.6.
The Benzie boys were led by Bailey (16:39.4) in 14th, Brayden Huddleston (16:41.5) in 17th, Max Graft (16:48.1) in 19th, Ismael Halaweh (17:07.9) in 30th and Jake Williams (17:08.3) in 31st.
Both Bailey and Huddleston earned all-state honors, while Gaft was one spot off all-state. He had missed three days of school this week with a virus.
“If he wouldn’t have been sick, he’d have been a lock (for all-state),” Asa Kelly said.
Huddleston was the fastest freshman in Divisions 2-4.
The conditions were a big factor.
After a rainy week, the course was wet and muddy. Coincidentally, those are the exact same conditions the Huskies have run in the last two weekends.
“I think it helped a lot, just knowing that this wasn’t a course for time,” Bailey said. “It was more for place. The footing was similar. We just kind of knew what we were looking at going into the race.”
Despite that, Bailey cut 20 seconds off his personal best.
Charlevoix was 12th as a team, paced by Tristen Rudolph (17:10.4) in 35th, Jackson Buday (17:31.5) in 61st, Noah Jeakle (17:47.7) in 75th and Luke Buday (17:49.8) in 77th.
Harbor Springs junior Marcus Garrow was 36th in 16:54.6.
Benzie’s girls also used the conditions to their advantage.
“We knew what to expect and that the footing wasn’t going to be great,” said senior Bryce Cutler, who placed 14th to earn all-state honors. “The regional race and racing at Manistee really helped us stay positive.”
“Considering the conditions, to be that close to a season P.R. on that course — unbelievable,” Traci Kelly said. “They just attacked that course. Those girls did not hold back. They weren’t afraid of it. They had a positive attitude going in. We’re walking the course, and they’re excited about the mud. They knew it was to their advantage — and they took advantage of it.”
Shepherd won the girls title.
Benzie was led by Cutler (19:24.7) in 14th, sophomore Stephanie Schaub (19:24.8) in 15th, senior Alyssa Bennett (20:17.8) in 34th, freshman Morgan Burch (20:50.4) in 61st and senior Rachael Peabody (20:50.9) in 62nd.
“We had some younger girls on the team that really stepped it up,” Cutler said. “We really couldn’t have done it without them.”
Schaub cut 20 seconds off her personal best to post the second best Division 3 sophomore time after Lindeman. Burch also set a new P.R. — by a whopping 45 seconds.
“Those were the things we didn’t count on that put us over the top,” Asa Kelly said. “Stephanie wasn’t even on varsity last year. She was No. 8 or 9 for us. She’s one of those kids where she came out for track and had a nice jump in track last spring and really started training hard last summer, started lifting weights. Here’s a girl who weighed less that 80 pounds last year, and she’s put on probably 10 pounds since last cross country season, maybe more than that. She really got stronger and more dedicated and made a big jump for us this year.
“It was really muddy and rainy for us early in the morning. It cleared up in the early afternoon. The course was slow. And for her to P.R. by 20 seconds on a muddy day was unbelievable.”
Consistency is something the Huskies pride themselves on. The boys team placed in the top 10 for the 20th straight year — a state record.
“Most teams, if you’ve made it to the final 20 years, that’s incredible,” Kelly said. “But to do it 20 years in a row, it’s just unreal.”
Benzie’s girls team has now placed in the top four each of the last four years.
“We all know we have to work very hard,” Cutler said. “We run all summer. We know it’s going to be a battle every year. We know the feeling of accomplishment you get at the end of the year. It all pays off.”
Reminiscent of Tom Izzo’s run of any four-year Michigan State basketball player making a Final Four, Benzie’s group of seniors on both the boys and girls side have won a state title.
“It was nice for them to go out on top their senior year,” Asa Kelly said. “So all our senior boys and girls who were here four years all ended up winning a state title.”
Charlevoix’s Caroline Boss was 40th in 20:09, while Elk Rapids’ Logan Luckett was 43rd in 20:10.3.