No one associated with the Hillsdale cross country program will ever completely forget the Hornet boys coming just tenths of a second short of a state title last season, but head coach Pat Pastula and his boys and girls are focused less on expectations, and more on progress as they head to Michigan International Speedway for the Division 3 championships Saturday.
The Hornet boys are ranked second behind Grandville-Calvin Christian in the final MichiganCrossCountry.com prep rankings, while the girls are making their ninth state finals appearance in 10 years.
While whispers of that elusive state title finally coming to fruition this year are certainly circulating throughout the county, the Hornet boys have enjoyed being out of the spotlight that consumed them much of the second half of the 2008 season.
“Last year we were ranked number one all season long and we kind of had a target on our back all year. This year there has actually been a lot less pressure, I think we’ve enjoyed our accomplishments a lot more because of that,” Pastula said. “It wasn’t just all about winning a state championship…even that said, last year we just really felt like we wanted to run our best race, and we did, we had two girls run and seven guys run and they all ran lifetime bests”
With Joe McAvoy leading the charge with a sixth-place finish the Hornets had a better total team time than state champion Shepherd, but the Blue Jays placed their first five runners before Hillsdale placed its top four.
Now 12 months later, this Hillsdale team has a much different identity without the leadership of McAvoy and Korey Cauklins.
But Pastula said he never asked anyone to try and emulate the duo because the leadership and talent they combined for is something “you see maybe once in a coaching career.”
“It is different. Joe is one of those kids where you just can’t replace a kid like that and Korey only ran cross country his senior year, but he also was one of those special kids as well,” Pastula said.
This year has been about the emergence of Sebastian Reisch as an all-state candidate after finishing 51st at states last year and the ability of different guys to turn in personal bests at any given race.
Pastula said junior Elijah Batchelor (Second Team All-Region last week) has been a good motivator to follow at times and while Lyle Kafer has been consistent after earning all-state status (20th) at MIS as a junior, Reisch has really run with a sense of urgency.
“(Becoming an all-state runner is something) we’ve talked about from the beginning of August, that he had the ability to do that. I think a couple of races in he really changed his mindset, from being somebody who could almost run with the front runners to being a front runner in a lot of races,” Pastula said. “Something clicked for him and I think the realization that this was his last year, his last chance to do everything. He told me at the Bath Invitational, which is like our second meet, that the realization hit him and ever since he’s been running like gang busters.”
Brian Terry and Mike Borton also finished in the top 20 at regionals and they have experience running under pressure.
Pastula said the team is not talking about winning or losing this week, instead they are sticking to their normal routine and keeping their focus on being mentally prepared.
“We have a mantra, we say “Keep your mind from the line until it’s time.” I think one of the biggest mistakes that anybody running in a state meet will make is they will try and run the race before the gun goes off on Saturday,” he said.
Grandville-Calvin Christian has essentially been the 2008 edition of the Hornets, ranked No. 1 all year, while Benzonia-Benzie Central is currently ranked third in Divison 3.
It is expected that one of those three teams will place first Saturday and Pastula said that’s a hard prediction to argue with.
“We’ve only ran against both those teams once, at Portage, and Grandville Calvin Christian was clearly the better team. We just edged Benzonia-Benzie Central by one point,” he said. “We learned the hard way though last year that they don’t pass out the state championship trophy at Portage. It was the opposite situation last year where we had a pretty convincing win at Portage and we might have won by as many as 40 points at that meet, and guess what, when Saturday came around at the state meet that didn’t matter.”
For the Hornet girls what matters most is the fact that they gained enough confidence in themselves to run a good enough race last week to qualify for the state meet.
Hillsdale was without top runner Hilary Kast for nearly a month and a largely unproven group of girls continued to turn in lifetime bests week after week as they gained a newfound competitive edge.
Courtney Hinkley and Kasey Caulkins really stepped it up the second half of the season, as the Hornets turned in some memorable finishes and runners like Cassandra Hastings have improved by a number of minutes over the course of the year.
Pastula said he is most proud of how his team has learned what it means to have a competitive fire as a driving force to better times and results
“That Saturday meet at the regional was so good, even though the conditions weren’t all that great. A lot of times kids that are just semi-interested in the sport will see those conditions and not be up to the challenge they present, but those girls came out and left nothing to chance, put everything on the line and said whatever happens is going to happen,” he said.
They finished third and it was proof that while Kast is definitely a key to the Hornets success, she is not the team’s end-all.
“(It) was sort of a gradual process (when she was out) and then they won that Sturgis Invitational without Hilary and that was a good step forward, and the bottom line is even if Hilary hadn’t run in the regional those girls still would have qualified,” Pastula said. “When they heard that you could just see their confidence go to another level. She is obviously important and we want to do it with her, but we’re more than just one person.”