Two years after she emerged as one of Michigan’s best high school cross country runners, Saline senior Jessi Larson has battled back from injuries and reclaimed her status.
Larson built on her surprising regional championship victory last week to finish fourth in the MHSAA Division 1 State Finals at Michigan International Speedway Saturday.
Larson helped the Hornets take 10th overall in the state. Kayla Fortino, Rebecca Cantrell, Nicole Dillman, Julian Romero, Ella Woehlke and Emma Cummings also ran for Saline. Saline finished with 277 points. Troy won with 127 points.
Larson shot out of the gate and was in third place at the first turn. About a mile into the race, Waterford Mott’s Rylee Robinson caught up with her and the two battled for a mile before Robinson pulled away.
“I wanted to go out fast and get a good position,” said Larson, who didn’t mind the wet, windy and cool conditions. “It was pretty muddy the last thousand (meters), but everything else was pretty fine. It was pretty cold, but running in the cold is the best, I think.”
Larson’s fourth-place finish puts her in the top echelon of Michigan high school distance runners. She first joined that elite group in her sophomore year when she won the regional and then surprised everyone with a second place finish at the state meet.
Broken bones in her foot cost her most of her junior season and knocked her out of the conversations people had about the state’s best runners.
Larson admits that she wasn’t sure she’d ever get back to the top of the sport.
“I had a lot of doubts,” she said.
But she had more support from friends, family and coaches, and even more drive and work ethic.
“My friends, my family, my coaches, everyone was really supportive and just tried to help me get through it and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” Larson said.
Trying to get back into distance running isn’t easy with broken bones in your foot. So, Larson stayed in shape by working out on the bike and in the pool, up to three hours a day.
“It was a lot of work. A lot of cross training. A lot of working alone. But I just tried to keep my head up and look forward to the future,” she said.
Saline coach Carl Spina said Larson’s return to the top of the sport is a great story.
“There were a few times in the past few years when it looked like she might be done. That’s difficult for an individual who has part of her identity wrapped up in the sport. But she always showed up, did the work and stayed ready in hopes that it would all work out in her favor,” Spina said. “When you think about the emotional component, along with all the training that goes along with the training required of an elite athlete, she’s one of the most resilient young people I’ve met.”
Larson’s wasn’t the only good story of the meet.
“A lot of the girls came out and ran their best. Their last two races have been phenomenal and that’s great to see,” Spina said.
Junior Kayla Fortino finished 38th – eight spots out of All-State honors. But she cracked 19 minutes for the first time. She finished in 18:42.6 – more than 21 seconds better than her previous career best and nearly a minute faster than her time at the meet last year.
“Kayla is a fierce young woman who is a lot of fun to coach. She ran a great race,” Spina said.
Senior Rebecca Cantrell went out with her personal record. She was 101st in 19:23, more than five seconds faster than her career best at the regional the previous week, and more than a minute faster than her time at the state meet as a junior. Sophomore Nicole Dillman also ran a career-best race. She was 125th in 19:39.8, more than 16 seconds better than her career best. Senior Juliana Romero had her best time of the season and the second best time of her career. She placed 146th with a time of 19:49.6.
Sophomore Ella Woehlke (169th, 20:00.3) and junior Emma Cummings (180th, 20:09) also ran for Saline.
Spina said the team’s top 10 finish was an accomplishment.
“It doesn’t come easy. There were injury issues we handled pretty well and a lot of girls ran great races to put us in the top 10,” Spina said.