By Jason Wesseldyk
The 2018 season ended with Saugatuck hoisting the Division 4 state championship trophy after beating runner-up Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart by 50 points.
And while the Indians lost individual state champ Corey Gorgas to graduation, they are expected to be in the hunt for the top prize in the state again this season.
‘We are a young team with a lot of expectations placed on us,” Saugatuck coach Rick Bauer said. “Many of the prognosticators have us picked to win or be second (at the state finals). Our goal is to stay healthy and to improve each week and hopefully be one of the teams that has a shot.”
A trio of returning All-State runners will be relied upon to lead the way.
Junior Nik Pettinga placed third at the state finals last season with a time of 16:18, while sophomore Max Sharnas was 11th at 17:04 and senior Winston Marcy was 24th at 17:16.
Sophomores Tristan Ashley (18:07) and Adam Martinson (18:14) also gained valuable experience by competing at the finals last year.
“My major concern is lack of experienced runners,” Bauer said. “Nik, Max and Winston are returning All-Staters and Adam and Tristan ran at finals last year, but we will have two for sure on the varsity that have never competed on the varsity team for the larger meets.”
The candidates to stake claim to those final two varsity spots are returning sophomore Kuris Bronz as well as the newcomer trio of senior Connor Seifert, freshman Luke Gorgas and freshman Charlie Stormer.
“We only have nine runners on the team so a lack of depth is also a concern,” Bauer said. “Our strength is that our guys have put in the work this summer. They have won before and know what that takes mentally and physically.”
In addition to its work at the state level, Saugatuck won the SAC championship for the seventh time in a row.
“We hope to challenge for our eighth straight conference title,” Bauer said.
Bauer will also spend some of his time coaching the Saugatuck girls’ team with his wife—and girls’ coach—Angelina on maternity leave following the birth of their second son on Aug. 16.
“Luckily I will have a lot of help from Mike Sharnas (former Black River coach), Zach Kerr (former All-Stater at Saugatuck) and Sam Putzke (former Saugatuck runner and part of five state championship teams),” Bauer said. “I am really excited to work with Mike and to have the alumni back working with the kids.”
Running has long been a family affair for Fennville’s Mendoza family.
This year is no different.
Senior Julie Mendoza and younger sister Angelica Mendoza are the only two returning runners on first-year Fennville coach Alex Best’s roster.
And Best couldn’t be happier to have them.
“I’m really looking forward to see the Mendozas in action,” said Best, who also coaches Julie and Angelica Mendoza’s brother Jonathan on the boys’ cross country team at Fennville.
Best is counting on the Mendoza sisters to lead the way in an effort to rebuild a program that has been struggling with low participation numbers the past few years.
“Our goal for this season is to lay a foundation of hard work and training the right way,” Best said. “Our expectations for this team are to practice the right way, perform our best and improve in some way every week through hard work, discipline and making running fun again.”
And while optimistic about his team’s chances to start turning things around, Best remains realistic when it comes to the challenges the Blackhawks face.
“Our current area of concern simply lies in low numbers,” Best said. “Holding our own in the conference will be tough as we will have short numbers this season.”
By Jason Wesseldyk
Saugatuck enters the season with a streak of 13 straight SAC championships. The Indians have also finished in the top 10 at the state finals for 11 consecutive seasons.
If those streaks are to continue, then Saugatuck coach Angelina Bauer will need to get some strong leadership from her team’s two returning seniors and some solid performances from the team’s younger members.
Saugatuck lost three All-State runners in Thea Johnson, Natalie Martinson and Taylor Conner as well as Kierstyn Stoin to graduation from a team that placed second at the Division 4 state finals last season.
“We are rebuilding this year, as we have a very young team,” Bauer said. “We have very few upperclassmen, and they will really have to step up and out of the shadows of last year’s seniors to take hold of their team.
“They are more than capable and I look forward to seeing them really step up. We’ve always told them that someday their number will be called, and that day has come.”
Jillian Vera and Sophie McQueary are the returning seniors.
Junior Jillian Johnson and senior Kyrah-Lynn Rodriguez have both earned All-State honors as sprinters in track and are back after running cross country last season.
“Jillian has put in a ton of work and she is looking better than ever,” Bauer said. “She has gotten a much better command of the distance thing and will be a major player for us this season.
“Kyrah-Lynn Rodríguez is also proving to be valuable as she gets more comfortable with distance running with a year of cross country experience now under her belt.”
Sophomores Hannah Smit, Ainsley Lowery, Adelaide Burmeister and Sydney Stickel also return. Newcomers include sophomore Lily Howitt, freshman Natalie Tuckerman and freshman Anna DeYoung.
“A lot of how our season unfolds will be in the hands of our young sophomores and freshmen,” Bauer said. “We have a huge group of returning sophomores and a few promising freshmen. It will be very fun to see who ends up stepping into the game.”
Given its overall youth, Saugatuck finds itself in the unfamiliar position of not being the concensus favorite to win the SAC title.
“It’s going to be tough and close this year,” Bauer said of the race for league honors. “For the first time in well over a decade, we are predicted to lose. Delton-Kellogg has lots of new and returning talent. It will be a new challenge but also fun. Close meets are always exciting. The girls will really have to work, and our work will be put to the test.
The Latin term tabula rasa roughly translates to “blank slate,” signifying a new beginning.
It should come as no surprise, then, that first-year Fennville coach Alex Best brings up that term when discussing the season ahead.
“This is a new start for this program,” Best said. “As a new head coach, I look to grow this program. I know we have talented athletes in Fennville who can run hard and consistently better themselves and their teammates. It’s now a matter of finding them and encouraging them to help make something special for Fennville cross country again.”
Junior Jonathan Mendoza will be the building block for Best. One of two returning runners from last season, Mendoza will be asked to lead the way for the Blackhawks.
Sophomore JJ Vanderkuyl also returns.
“We’re young and building,” said Best, who competed collegiately at Ferris State University. “The program has not been tended to very well over the past three years. We are eager to start something special here again.”