Saline’s boys cross country team got jammed up early in the MHSAA Division 1 finals at Michigan International Speedway Saturday. But the Hornets battled back to finish fifth in the state.
Led by senior Anthony DeKraker (27th, 15:54), who earned his first all-state finish, Saline finished with 246 points. Ann Arbor Pioneer, led by individual champion Nick Foster (15:16.1), edged Plymouth, 107-110, to win the team title.
It wasn’t an easy race. State championship races are difficult to begin with. But the D1 boys’ race was the final race of the day. It was delayed several times due to lightning. When the race finally began, the rain was blowing sideways and the temperatures had fallen. Saline coach Carl Spina talked about trying to keep his team focused.
“We looked at the weather as an opportunity – a potential equalizer. If a top team has a couple kids fall back because of the weather, that’s something we can use,” Spina said. “With all the delays, warmups were less than optimal. But in a race like this, warm ups are less important than having your head on straight.”
The Hornets didn’t get the start they wanted. 800 meters into the race, DeKraker was well back of the leaders. DeKraker, Jevin Nishioka, Josh Cook, Simon Pfeiffer and Aidan Delfuoco were running in a tight pack, probably around 70th place or so.
“I liked the way we responded. If we don’t respond well after that tough start, we’re looking at finishing in 15th or 16th place and not fifth place,” Carl Spina said. “I was really proud with the way they reacted. They were like, ‘I’ve got to fight and I’ve got to fight even more.’”
By the time they reached the two-mile marker, DeKraker had separated from the pack of Hornets and was had gained 20 places. Nishioka and Cook also made gains.
DeKraker – Saline’s star runner – finally earned the all-state finish he coveted. But it didn’t go as planned. Spina said DeKraker said that from 3200 meters to 4000 meters, DeKraker probably passed 40 runners to finish 27th. The top 30 make All State.
“You aren’t entitled to anything in sports. You have to go fight for it and go get it. Anthony put in the work. As a junior, he didn’t quite get it done. Today he got in trouble early but still found a way,” Spina said. “So I’m very proud of Anthony.”
In a way, DeKraker’s slow start might have helped the team. All week, the Hornet mantra has been “run well together.” The top five Hornets wouldn’t have been able to run the first half of the race together without DeKraker’s slow start.
“For Anthony it was probably a moment of panic, but for the other kids, it was like, ‘I’m running well with my teammates,’” Spina said.
Josh Cook (58th, 16:18) was particularly strong down the stretch. He was .2 seconds of his personal best, despite the slow, soggy course.
“He’s had a phenomenal nine months,” Spina said. “He’s fierce out there. He has a fire and drive that stands out even among these kids competing at a very high level.”
Junior Jevin Nishioka, who figures to return as the team’s top runner next year, was 82nd in 16:27. Fellow junior Simon Pfeiffer was 88th in 16:28.8, just 1.1 seconds of his personal best.
Senior Aidan Delfuoco finished his cross country career by taking 107th in 16:38.5. He took nearly a minute of last year’s time and also ran his second fastest time of his career.
Junior Will Downey (161st, 16:58.9) and sophomore William Minette (162nd, 16:59.2) finished out of the scoring but gained experience that should help them next year.
The fifth place finish wasn’t a big surprise for the Hornets – who were one of the better teams in the state all year but a cut below Pioneer. Spina was satisfied with the placement.
“It’s a good day for your program when you can have a rough day and still finish fifth in the state championship. We’re not going to have our chin on our chest for this. We always want to win, but I think this was a pretty good place for us to be,” Spina said.