With a target on its back, Ann Arbor Pioneer's girls cross country raced to its program's fourth Division 1 title Saturday with a comfortable, 33-point victory over runner-up Traverse City Central at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
Pioneer had been considered the best team in the state for most of the season and boasted one of the fastest Michigan runners ever in senior Zophia Dudek, who won the overall title in 17:00 on a slightly muddy course, 53 seconds faster than second-place finisher Arianne Olson of Holland West Ottawa.
Despite going in as the clear favorite after finishing second last year, Pioneer coach Nancy Boudrea's overriding emotion before the race was fear.
"Words can't describe it," Boudrea said. "We were scared going into it. The scary part was that we knew we should win, but in cross country anything can happen. Especially on a muddy course, somebody could fall down or twist an ankle. I wasn't worried they (the team) wouldn't give 100 percent, but you can't count on anything. Everything just came together today."
Dudek's individual title caps a very successful season that displayed loads of improvement after he finished third at 17:59 last season, but this season almost didn't happen for Dudek and her sister, Anna, who set her personal record on Saturday with a 19:25 for 58th place overall.
The Dudeks grew up in Warsaw, Poland, but their father is a visiting professor of economics at the University of Michigan, and because of his position, the family wasn't sure the girls would be at Pioneer again until late summer.
"Zophia (Dudek) is so fast that there hasn't been anybody close to her all season. She's been running alone," Boudrea said. "But once we knew they (the Dudeks) were coming back, we knew we had a good chance at states."
For Pioneer, sophomore Sarah Forsyth finished eighth (18:14), sophomore Cookie Baugh 21st (18:50), senior Anna Vogel 24th (19:01), sophomore Charlotte Batra 26th (19:08), and senior Danielle Armstrong ran a personal record with a 20:14 (97th place).
Traverse City Central was paced by sophomore Julia Flynn, who finished third (17:59).
"This was a pivotal day for Julia (Flynn)," Central coach Lisa Taylor said. "She's learning to trust her coaches more and more. We worked really hard with Julia to teach her how to go out more conservatively. Today she executed that perfectly and really improved over tenth place last year."
Central made states for the 24th-straight time and will only lose one of its top seven runners to graduation. With mild improvement from the rest of its team, Taylor could be looking at something special for 2020.
"It's fun to think about most of these kids coming back," Taylor said.
Saline sophomore Madi Wood finished fourth (18:02), and her team finished third (182).
Brighton finished fourth (197).
East Grand Rapids dominated, winning the team competition with 36 points and placing senior Anna Petr first overall (17:59.6), then putting three more runners in the top 10.
Lansing Catholic's Jaden Theis (18:02) won the overall crown last year but was nudged to second this year, with Plainwell's Makenna Veen (18:05) following in third.
Petoskey (91) was second and Otsego (199) was third.
Dearborn Divine Child (307) was ninth, paced by Erin Hegarty (19:12), who was 27th overall.
Hart dominated with 77 points to win the championship, placing three runners in the top 10, including Savannah Ackley (18:49) in second and Audrianna Enns (18:56) in third.
Shepherd took second in the team competition with 133 points.
Stockbridge sophomore Rylee Tolson (18:31) won the overall crown.
The top area team was Richmond (532), which came in 20th.
Muskegon Western sophomore Abby VanderKooi (18:11) won her second Division 4 title, this time by a 1:11 margin over second-place finisher Riley Ford (19:22) of Marlette.
Bridgman won the team title with 132 points and two runners in the top 10. Karsyn Stewart (19:39) was third and Arie Hackett (19:58) was sixth.
Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart came in second with 148 points.
The top Detroit-area team was Clarkston Everest (317) which came in 10th.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.