Friday, August 14, 2009

Raffin: East Kentwood's girls on the rise

It is Monday evening, and Wednesday will be the first official day of cross country in Michigan, and already I am anticipating the Division I girls’ race on that Saturday in November at the Michigan International Speedway.

If you remember, last year Traverse City won that D1 title with 129 points and will return four of its top five and five of its top seven. Grand Haven scored 148 points graduated its top two runners, but returns five of its top seven. Rockford with 195 points finished fourth and returns six of its last year’s runners. Brighton finished fifth with 220 points and returns five of its runners with two talented frosh ready to step in. Five teams within a hundred points is a close meet, and the race could be closer this fall

You know those teams will be at MIS on that Saturday in November along with at least 23 other teams, including my prediction for this year’s winner—East Kentwood.

Ray Antell’s Falcons (or are they the “Falconettes”?) scored 189 points last year and have everyone returning this year. So a few days ago I placed a phone call to coach Antell so I could find out about his team.

Well, one thing about Antell, he is not bashful; he likes to tell you what he thinks, and one of his first long sentences was,” I know we will be contenders this year; we won’t sneak up on teams this year; and we are going for the title.”

And East Kentwood has the girls to take that crown.

Last year East Kentwood’s one – two punch consisted of Alissa Williams and Krista Parks, who in most meets ran together; and in the Foot Locker regionals in Kenosha, Wisconsin, late last November, Williams and Parks finished 13th and 14th. Williams, now a junior, and Parks, a senior, could both be top ten finishers in the team score this fall.

Williams now holds the school record of 18:16 and dethroned former Falcon ace Molly Lori, who was a state champion on that 80 degree day on a tough University of Michigan course in Ann Arbor in 1990. Williams may not duplicate Lori’s feat, but if she can run as fast as Molly Lori, she will receive a single digit place at MIS.

Parks had a problem in the state track championship last spring and faltered yards before the finish line. Antell told me Parks was suffering from a glucose problem, and “we have to monitor it.” Last fall Parks placed 23rd in team scoring, and in the two invitationals in which I saw her, she was a top five finisher.

Leah Shepherd, now a junior, was all-state as a frosh, but as a sophomore placed 36th in team scoring as she had problems with ligaments on her knee cap, but Antell claims, “Shepherd is on the mend.”

Sophomore Casey Westveer, East Kentwood’s number four runner will surprise this fall. She is an outstanding soccer player who does not run track. And Antell says, “She will not be in travel soccer as she was last fall. Casey might be the team’s best athlete.” Westveer placed 43rd in team scoring last season.

Number five runner Jessica Dippel is a senior from a good senior class that so far has accomplished a lot in sports for East Kentwood. Any improvement that Dippel achieves will be a great plus for the team as she placed 78th in team scoring in 2008.

Erica Parks, a very competitive sophomore, as a frosh placed in the 100’s, but Antell told me, “She will be there at the end.”

The final member of the varsity team, if the team had a meet on Wednesday, is senior Brynley Nadziejka in whom Antell has a lot of confidence.

Not only are the team members good runners, but they are intelligent as the East Kentwood squad finished second in the All-Academic D – 1 “race.”

East Kentwood girls’ team finished the season last year with 32 runners, and Antell knows he will have over 30 candidates on the team this fall.

Why am I so high on East Kentwood this season? Because Antell told me,
“We had a fantastic summer.” And, usually if a team has a fantastic summer, it will have a fantastic fall.

This summer East Kentwood had a “captain’s practice” Monday through Friday at the high school that began at 9:00 A.M. Every morning there were at least 12 to 20 runners. Because Antell believes in the Paavo program, the captains selected long runs, short runs, recovery runs, slow intervals, or whatever the Paavo program called for.

“I am hands-off in the summer,” claims Antell. “I show up at the end of the ‘captain’s practice’ once a week with watermelon or any fruit in season. The team members know the Paavo program and believe in it because I believe in it.”

Most of the runners were up to 45 to 50 miles a week as the season now begins. In June the girls went to a camp with the Hopkins girls’ team and coaches; now, for the first week of the season, Antell will take the boys to camp with the Wayland, Saugatuck, Hastings, and Bridgman teams and coaches. While Antell is at camp this week, his assistant coach will run the girls’ practices in Kentwood.

Antell is no rookie coaching good teams. He is in his fourth season at East Kentwood. Before he came to Kentwood, he was the coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville from 1992 to 2005. It took him only three seasons at Kellogsville to win a regional, and in 2000 Antell guided Nicole Bush and that team to the D3 state championship.

Antell is into running. While he was a senior at Benzie Central under coach Pete Moss, Antell put in a thousand miles of running during the summer. He learned the sport from a legendary coach and ran on great high school teams.

This past week-end Antell participated in his 29th Crystal Lake Marathon Relay, a five person relay where the first four runners cover five miles and the anchor leg goes 6.2 miles. In addition, he just finished his 13th summer of guiding the Wayland (where Antell lives) summer running club, which meets one night a week for ten weeks and has 80 to 110 runners show up weekly. Antell borrowed the club idea from the Traverse City summer running program.

And Antell has been a part of the rise of East Kentwood’s track and field and cross country programs. He is the boys and girls distance coach; he guides the boy and girl 800, 1600, 3200, 4 x 800 relay runners during track season.
The head coaches in track at East Kentwood, Dave Emmeott for the boys and Stephanie Stephenson for the girls, have individual sprint, hurdle, jump, throw, vault, distance coaches. It is no secret why East Kentwood has been a rising D1 power for the last four or five years.

I do not doubt the ability of coach Lisa Taylor of Traverse City Central and her Trojan runners, for Central has a reputation for track and field and cross country excellence. Or the young girls returning from Grand Haven (three juniors and two sophomores). Or the accomplishments since the 1990’s of Rockford High School in all sports. Or the talents of coach Gary Meehan and his Brighton athletes.

But, when I go to the betting window at MIS on that first Saturday in November, I’m going to put all my meager retiree’s money on coach Ray Antell and his East Kentwood Falcons team to capture that D1 cross country championship.

(Any question or suggestions, contact Look for article about Megan Goethals of Rochester High School early next week.)

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