The last time a Rockford Cross Country lady Ram took top honors at the State Finals was Rachel Wittum in 2003. That top honor, and best finals time, now belongs to Ericka VanderLende. Having battled all season with Traverse City Centrals’ Sielle Kearney who placed 5th at the MSU Invitational to Ericka’s 4th and then took 1st at Portage with Ericka 3rd. It was time for Ericka to show that a 99th place finish last year was not the runner that she wanted to be. Putting in the necessary miles over the winter, spring and summer she proved that hard work pays off. Michigan International Speedway has been the host site for all Cross-Country finals since 1996 and this year it was VanderLende who beat it down.
The 2017 finals saw two excellent runners battle over the 3.1 miles. Ericka and Sielle split from the field between the half mile and mile mark getting out to a 5:30 pace. By the two-mile, Ericka had built a six second lead running 5:35 for the second mile. She stretched out that lead in the third mile with a 5:39 pace. Leading by 10 seconds with a tenth of a mile to go, Ericka hammered down the finishing straight to win by 14 seconds in a stellar time of 17:16.8 which counts as the 6th fastest all time at MIS since 1996 and the fastest state finals time in school history.
Ericka said, “I pushed the pace when I felt good. The plan was to stay in the front. The last 800 meters felt really good.” Sielle countered, “She was going real strong and she had an awesome race.”
Fellow teammate, Camryn Gabriel having placed 35th her Freshman year, 32nd and then 34th as a Junior was determined to break the top 30 All State barrier and did so with a 21st place finish in her best state finals time of (18:14.2). Coach Watson spoke of her consistency, “Cami has been our top runner at states the past three years. Ericka jumped into that spot with a phenomenal effort today. Cami has had an outstanding high school career. Her tenacity over the past four years has helped our team tremendously.” He continued, “Both of these girls have shown strong leadership for our team. Their work ethic has been an example for others to follow.”
The Lady Rams’ entered the State Finals ranked ahead of Northville and Troy. It was a stellar performance by Troy that garnered them the state title. Placing their top 5 scoring runners with a spread of only 38 seconds in (10-26-29-30-32) for a total of 127 points, proved too much for the rest of the field. Northville placed a close second with 132 points (7-12-19-46-48). Rockford totaled 153 points (1-14-39-47-52). Having placed 14th last year, Coach Watson was pleased to get back into the top 10 for the 21st time in the 22 years that the State Finals have been held at MIS. “As a team we had a tough year last year. Our upperclassman wanted better than that. We were favored going into the weekend. Troy packed four runners in 3.7 seconds and that was too much to overcome. I am proud of how our girls bounced back from last year.”
Just as the lady Ram’s finished, the weather decided to change. Having had cool and dry, but windy weather, it now turned to rain and the first sounds of thunder which caused a 30-minute delay in the Division 2 boys’ race. After the completion of that race another two delays pushed the start of the Division 1 race back even further. Those boy’s having warmed up time and again, finally got underway.
A lead group of eight runners passed the mile mark in 5:04 which included Rockford’s Cole Johnson. The pack of runners stayed together through 2 miles running a bit faster at 4:59 pace. Cole decided to stretch the pace in the third mile going 4:42. With one tenth of a mile to go in the 3.1-mile race, Cole held a 4 second lead. Nick Foster of Ann Arbor Pioneer charging down the stretch caught Johnson just before the finish line with a winning time of 15:16.1 ahead of Cole in 15:18.2. As Foster stated after the race,” He’s such a good runner, I didn’t think it was possible. Cole is the best track runner in the state.”
In fact, Cole Johnson has also been one of the best in cross country. His state finals performances have been a tale of woes. As a freshman he showed the promise of what was to come with a 16th place finish, followed up with a 3rd place showing as a sophomore. Last years’ unseasonable heat took a major physical toll on Cole as heat stroke set in with 800 meters to go, bringing Cole to his knees and a last place finish. This year all was aligned for success. A first-place finish at the Portage Invitational, which is a prequel to the state finals, showed that Cole was in prime form. Having to warm up multiple times through three weather delays of one hour and 10 minutes, he now had to run down the stretch on a terrain made soggy by downpours which took its’ toll on his legs. Uncharacteristically, caught in the final 50 meters he had to settle for 2nd place. It has still been a phenomenal career for Cole Johnson a four-time All-Regional and three-time All-State cross-country runner.
Senior Dayton Brown improved on his 39th place finish a year ago to also capture All-State honors with a 21st place finish in 15:48, a 30 second improvement over last year. Dayton completes his Rockford cross country career 7th in the all-time rankings not far behind Cole’s 4th place ranking.
The team had a good showing taking 9th place with runners scoring (2-15-51-135-137). Nick Fosters’ Ann Arbor Pioneer team captured the state team title, as well as individual, with 107 points just ahead of Plymouth 110.
Coach Martin spoke of his two All State Senior runners, “Cole and Dayton have had outstanding high school running careers. It has been a privilege to coach such quality athletes, but more importantly young men with outstanding character.” He also commented, “Cole was so close to making it a clean sweep of the individual titles after the wonderful performance by Ericka. All of Rockford is proud of both their accomplishments.” Coach Watson stated, “Rockford added 3 runners to the All State ranks with Ericka, Cami and Dayton complimenting Coles’ 3 All State accomplishments. It has been a wonderful season.”