Prep cross country: Churchill, Johnson lead Negaunee over Westwood, Ishpeming at WIN Meet

NEGAUNEE – Negaunee showed how deep its cross country teams are on Tuesday afternoon.

Defending WIN meet champions Wyleen Kniola and Keenan Gantz, both Miners seniors this season, weren’t up to par because of physical issues. But all that did was open up opportunities for a pair of teammates – senior Clara Churchill and sophomore Grant Johnson – to win their first-ever individual races.

In fact, Negaunee swept the top three places in each meet to easily win team titles over Westwood and Ishpeming on the 5-kilometer course through the woods behind the Negaunee Township Hall.

“Clara and Grant are both very tough runners,” Negaunee coach Lisa Bigalk said.

The Miners scored 19 points in the girls meet to 54 for Westwood and 70 for Ishpeming, while the NHS boys scored 18 points as the Hematites totaled 52 and Patriots 75.

Kniola has twice injured her ankle this season, and did it a third time coming up a hill just before the final stretch and had to drop out.

Gantz, meanwhile, had no problem finishing the race, but came in 18 seconds behind Johnson as he recently missed several weeks of practice due to having his wisdom teeth pulled.

“Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, because I’ve only been back at practice for a week,” Gantz said.

For his part, Johnson said it was an odd feeling setting the pace at the tail end of a race. He is used to doing it early, since he likes to get off to fast starts.

“Usually I sprint out just enough to get to the front of the pack, but now I’m learning to pace myself better,” said Johnson, who added that he tried track spikes Tuesday for the first time in a cross country meet.

Taking fifth place in this race as a freshman, he said it didn’t hurt that he’s grown two or three inches in height in the past year, too.

Those reasons had to at least partly explain how he chopped 91 seconds off his time of last year on the same course, down to 18 minutes, 21 seconds on Tuesday.

“My goal is break 18 minutes,” he said about something he’ll continue to strive for.

Churchill doesn’t fancy herself as an accomplished cross country runner as much as a track specialist, particularly in the 800-meter run and several relays.

She might have to rethink that after winning the girls race in 21:52, which was 1:22 better than runner-up and freshman teammate Melanie Kniola.

At last spring’s MHSAA Upper Peninsula Division 1 track finals, Churchill placed fourth in the 800 and ran with second- and third-place Negaunee teams in relays.

“I was just following her and going off her pace,” Churchill said about staying close to Wyleen Kniola for most of the way on Tuesday. “Then I passed her on that last hill. It’s only about a quarter-mile before the finish line. That’s not even like an 800 I ran on my own.

“I feel ecstatic to win.”

The runner-up teams in each race also had the fourth-place finishers. For the boys, that was Ishpeming sophomore Kazmine Langness, who clocked 19:10 to miss third place by six seconds, and Westwood sophomore Annie Bjork, who finished in 23:47 and 10 seconds out of third.

“Kazmine had a PR today, that’s a personal record,” IHS first-year coach Paul Pruett said. “We’re getting faster every time out there.

“I’m excited because we have 80 athletes between the high school and middle school programs. In fact, this year is the first time we’ve had a (full) girls team at Ishpeming in 15 years.”

Westwood coach Steve Pohlman shared similar sentiments.

“It’s a nerve-wracking race, because I know if our kids put up their best performances, we can do really well at this meet,” he said. “That and you’re competing against your neighbors.

“Our top girls runner, Gabby French, was sick, but other girls like Annie stepped it up. We had four medalists (for finishing in the top 15) in the girls meet.”