Forest Hills — Senior Brendan Hoving can remember the moment he knew the Eastern High boys cross-country team had clinched its first state title.
“I had just crossed the finish line and looked over at the scoreboard,” he recalled. “It was an electronic board, so it was scrambling through as people crossed the line, and then Eastern appeared at the top.”
It would be a full 25 minutes before the official results were announced: the team had clinched its first state title.
It is quite an accomplishment for a team that a couple of years ago could not even qualify for state.
Coach Dan McElheny, who also is assistant principal at Eastern High, said he thinks the team “willed their way to being the best team in the state.”
‘I really believe the only option for us was to win.’— senior Brendan Hoving
A Group Effort
Cross-country is both a team and individual sport. At the high school level, only seven runners participate in a meet; they run a 5K or 3.1-mile course, with individual runners recognized for the order they place.
For the team, it is the top five who are scorers, each receiving points depending on where they place. If the runner places first, the team gets one point, and just like in golf, the cross-country team with the lowest points wins. The remaining two runners have the goal of placing in front of opposing teams, increasing those teams’ score. Also, the scores from those runners may be used as tie-breakers.
For the Eastern cross-country team, five athletes were consistent leaders: junior Henry Dixon, who placed sixth at state; senior Liam Hinman, who placed 29th; Brendan, who placed 30th; senior Cooper Jacobsen, who placed 38th; and junior Tyler Endres, who placed 82nd. Rounding out the state team were seniors Tate Miller and Luke Ueland. Henry, Liam and Brendan were named all-state athletes.
While only seven competed, it was all 30 members who supported one another during off-season conditioning and regular training.
“We became a close group,” Brendan said. “We had a really good team that we could count on each other and hold each other accountable on things like making sure we were getting at least nine to 10 hours (sleep) for our bodies to rest.”
Many team members were fairly new to the sport, McElheny said. In the fall of 2020, the Eastern cross-country team had a strong group of students with potential, he said, but the pandemic hit, which caused a “ton of turnover.” In the fall of 2021, the team was young with no standouts, and did not qualify for anything, he said.
A Team Comes Together
It was the fall of 2021 that Brendan joined the team.
“I was running on track in the spring and I discovered I liked running,” Brendan said. “I had never ran before in my life. I remember, the night before sign-ups were due, I signed up. It was kind of an impulse.”
The team continued to grow and recruit, with senior Cooper Jacobsen hanging up his soccer cleats in 2022 to join.
“I was used to running 5Ks,” Cooper said. “Since I was a former soccer player, which was a fall sport, I wanted to keep in shape. And so in the spring, I tried out for the track team.” The cross-country team came next.
In 2022, the team improved greatly, McElheny said. The team won the OK Gold Conference that year, placed second at regionals and fifth at state.
“They wanted to win state,” McElheny said, adding that many of the team members dedicated themselves to training indoors and during the summer. At the start of the 2023 cross-country season, McElheny said he could see the growth and progress athletes had made, which positioned them well for the meets.
“I think we all believed we had a stronger chance than last year,” Brendan said. “We were working really hard and just felt like we had more of a chance to win it.”
They Take It All
The team for the second year in a row captured the OK Gold Conference title. And when Eastern defeated 2022 regional champs East Grand Rapids for the regional title, Cooper said he felt confident the team would do well at state.
“I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t won,” Brendan said. “I really believe the only option for us was to win.”
Cooper admitted he could not bear to look at the scoreboard as he crossed the finish line. “I didn’t want to jinx anything,” he said.
Since Eastern’s score of 134 was about 22 points away from the next competitor’s, the chances of the team being bumped out of first place as scores were finalized were slim, McElheny said. Still, most of the team members waited until the official announcement came before celebrating.
McElheny said he sees another bright season for the cross-country team next year, even though five of the top seven members graduate this year. There are a number of younger runners ready to take those top spots, he said.
Brendan and Cooper both plan to continue running. Cooper has made a commitment to Hope College to run track and cross-country in the fall.