By Seth Kinker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Prior to the 2017 season, the best finish in Chelsea Cross Country history was fourth-place in 2008.
Heading into next season, the Bulldogs will do so as back to back state champions after edging Fremont for back to back state titles this year on Nov. 3, 2018 at Michigan International Speedway (MIS)
“We actually thought we lost, even our coach was making predictions we lost by two points or whatever,” said senior Jenson Holm. “It was close, we won by like ten points, it was crazy watching. Everyone had a great race but watching Zander Hartsuff and Joseph Norwood, our fourth and fifth guys, pass the two Fremont guys at the end and put a couple guys between them, it was crazy. I knew it would be close but that was the key, it was fun to watch and be a part of back to back state title teams.”
“We definitely felt pressure, but we weren’t going to change anything,” said senior Carson Rabbit on heading into the year as the returning state champions. “It was a goal of ours. We wanted this one as bad as last year.”
The emergence of the program can be attributed to head coach Eric Swager, who just completed his 24th year as coach of the boys’ cross country program and led his program to state qualifiers for the 17th year in a row.
Swager told The Sun Times that after years of focusing on the outcome, now, the focus heading into each year is improvement.
“It reiterates when people buy into the system we have, it works,” said Swager reflecting on this year. “We’ve had the system for a while, the way we attack races, training, and stuff like that. It’s only been the past few years that most of the team completely understands and buys in.”
This year Swager said the Bulldogs weren’t necessarily the favorite heading into the season. Now, even as back to back state champions, he still maintains Fremont is more talented. Early in the year, the team’s hope took a blow when Holm, one of three all state seniors on the team, had to have surgery on his ankle.
Swager, who told The Sun Times that Holm came into the year the fittest he’s ever been as a runner, said Holm came back after Labor Day weekend with ankle soreness.
Initial evaluations said it was tendinitis, so Holm kept running. After the Spartan Invite on Sept. 14 everyone knew something else was wrong. An MRI revealed a stress fracture that ended his senior campaign.
Swager credited his team with rolling with the punches, as they held onto the No. 1 ranking throughout the season despite losing Holm for the season.
Swager talked to The Sun Times about Holm’s impact on the team this year, despite not running for a majority of it.
“The one thing I said at the end of the season,” said Swager. “The tone he set as far as being willing to train and run hard on the weekends and stuff carried over to the whole team and so without him and that mindset going in, I’m not sure we had that success that we did.”
“He stayed positive and with the team,” continued Swager. “He was at the state meet with us, warmed up with us at the state meet, was up with us on stage. He was every bit a part of the team even though he wasn’t running. That’s a good lesson for life, what do you do when things don’t go as planned.”
“In the offseason I was running like 85-90 miles per week. Workouts every single day, intense, and more frequent. My long run went from 15 to 17 miles,” said Holm on his offseason work leading into the season.
“I was pretty much in denial the whole time,” added Holm on his injury. “I wanted to keep on running but I realized in the bigger picture having 4-5 years of college running and maybe after that, it’s not worth it to make it worse.”
Around midseason at the Chelsea Invite, Swager saw a lot of his runner’s times drop.
“I said ‘ok, were not pretenders anymore, we might have a legitimate shot to win the thing,’” said Swager.
On Nov. 3 the Bulldogs edged out Fremont, by thirteen points 121-134. Despite a slower start to the race on Nov. 3, Swagger wasn’t worried. All season his team had come out even keeled and passed people as the race went on.
“I don’t think it was until the last half mile we caught (Fremont),” said Swager. “Our fourth and fifth runners had a great push in the last ½ mile to make up a whole bunch of points. It was just enough at the end that we were able to get by them.”
“I was really proud of the guys, that was my main thing,” said Swager on his emotions after claiming the second consecutive state title. “Proud because they ran with our plan and didn’t freak out. That our program, the way we race, and train all aligned to give us the ultimate result.”
“Early on Swager pounded into our heads ‘Chelsea guys pass people in the second half of the race,’” added senior Foster Thorburn on what stood out to him this year. “Every single race he told us that and so even some of the slower guys on the team were passing like 20 guys in the last mile (of races).”
After Holm went down, the performance of all the runners became more important and they stepped up at MIS.
“Every team, you’ll find a top coach saying he didn’t run well. All seven of our guys ran well,” said Swager. “All ran very well, and we needed to do that. That’s what I’m most proud of, they just went out and performed.”
Chelsea loses five seniors, three of them all state runners, but have a promising future with seven sophomores comprising the bulk of this year’s team.
“20 runners on the team this year,” said Swager. “The biggest class is sophomores, I challenged them at the banquet at the end of the year. The team will be determined on how well they decide to train over the next year. If we take the same attitude and training intensity throughout the rest of the winter and next summer, I would hope we can get back to states and make a decent showing.”
“A lot of them (younger guys) after we won, they were like ‘how can we win next year?’ They just have to trust coach,” said Holm “They’re really talented but haven’t put in the work they need to, they’re motivated now that us three seniors are gone.”
Rabbitt finished 11th in 16:15, Thorburn 12th in 16:17, and junior Will Scott placed 14th in 16:18.
Hartsuff finished 39th in 16:55, while Norwood was 45th in 16:58. Sophomores Owen Smith finished 50th in 17:01 and Erik Reiber 67th in 17:10.
The Bulldogs finished Academic All State, had three runners finish All State, and seven runners on the All Region team.