The 2018 fall season will be a learn-as-you-go proposition for the Saline cross country teams.
On the boys side, the Hornets graduated star Anthony DeKraker and reliable seniors Joshua Cook and Aidan Delfuoco. On the girls side, Saline graduated star Jessie Larson and accomplished varsity runners Rebecca Cantrell. Both teams are losing their fastest runner and three of the five scorers are the Division one state meet.
Replacing those seniors is a tall task for any team. The challenge is tougher for a Hornet team trying to gain ground on Pioneer in a tough SEC Red division. Coach Carl Spina and his staff won’t the led the team be overburdened by goals.
“We try to keep our focus inwards when we set goals. We want to be the best version of Saline we can be, and that seems to work out for us. We want to get our training right, we want to create the right atmosphere so cross country is a place that kids want to be, and we want to look after each other and be great teammates,” Spina said. “At the same time, I think the community expects Saline XC to be at the top of the conference and in the top ten of Michigan. Even without big names like DeKraker and Larson, we will find a way again this year.”
Leading the boys are captains Jevin Nishioka, Eric Reuter, Matt Thibeault, Simon Pfeiffer, Brock Boze, Will Downey and Win Walker. The girls’ captains are Kayla Fortino, Katie Militello, Gillian Nelson, Emma Cummings, Ally Dillman and Alexa Stern.
Nishioka is the boys’ fastest returning athlete. He was 82nd at the state meet last year, finishing in 16:27. He’ll compete with the Simon Pfeiffer and Will Minnette to be the go-to runner.
“Jevin Nishioka is the name we know, and he's a very talented athlete. He cares about winning in ways that a lot of other kids don't get. He's had to learn a lot about perseverance in the past year and a half, and I think he's better for it in the end,” Spina said. “Will Minnette and Simon Pfeiffer are two more kids that can contend for that top spot for us. Both were really productive racers this spring and have had really good summers of training. I think there are one or two other boys that could be up there too. We'll just see how they shake out.”
On the girls’ side, Kayla Fortino is the go-to runner. Fortino was 38th at the state meet. She bettered her time by more than a minute from the previous year’s race, finishing in 18:42.6. Being the number one runner is nothing new for Fortino. She was often Saline’s top runner during her sophomore year, when Larson was sidelined by injury.
“Kayla Fortino is the clear leader on the girls' side. She has a good training history, a good amount of speed, and some amount of talent. Plus, she's just plain tough and does best when the stakes are highest. She has been part of varsity since she was a freshman, so she has done and seen a lot,” Spina said.
On both the girls’ and boys’ teams, runners will compete for varsity spots.
“It's no secret that we graduated a lot of kids from last year's team, so we have a few open positions. I don't think we know who the top seven is on either side. We have some kids in the front group for boys and girls, but the next five or ten spots for both teams have a lot of kids contending for those positions. A chunk of the fall will be spent helping those kids sort it out,” Spina said.
Brock Boze has made a lot of progress and figures to become a regular scorer for Saline. Senior Kyle Lentine is a first-year runner who has caught coaches’ attention. Junior Chris Van Dyke, also a first-year runner, is also making noise.
“(Van Dyke) was a standout 800m runner this last spring. He just has to get used to the longer races, but I think he's better at 5k than 800m,” Spina said.
On the girls side, other returners from the state meet include juniors Nicole Dillman and Ella Woehlke and senior Emma Cummings. Spina said Jenna Allman has made great progress and should be a top-five runner this fall. Freshmen Taylor Yaklich, Claire Endres and Maddie Stern could also contribute.
“We also have had a few freshmen move into the district that we don't know much about, but they look like varsity athletes,” Spina said.
Whether the talent is a little up or a little down, there are a few constants that steady the Saline cross country teams.
“Saline has a lot of kids involved in the sport and many of them are training very seriously, so we have a lot of kids that have developed themselves into very good athletes. We also have a community and district that support our sport. Cross country matters here in Saline. It makes a world of difference for our athletes,” Spina said.
The expectations that come with Saline cross country are an important part of the culture that drives success.
“The kids that have been part of the program for a few years have seen Saline have success at a state level, so they have an expectation and understanding of how it all comes together. It's not like magic for them, or a far-off goal that's difficult to imagine. It's something they have lived or have seen their friends and teammates live, and they know how to get there, so they just keep doing the work necessary to get there again,” Spina said.