Local runners competing in cross country state finals
ALPENA — For Kaelyn Heath, it still hasn’t sunk in yet.
But when she’s surrounded today by dozens of the best runners in the state, what the Alpena High freshman has accomplished will surely become real.
She’s competing in the state finals.
Heath will be one of four Alpena runners competing today in the Lower Peninsula Cross Country finals at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
“(It feels) weird. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s exciting. I’m kind of nervous,” Heath said. “I never expected it if I’m being honest.”
Heath will be joined by teammates Madi Szymanski, Hayden Allen, and Emma Dickens. Alpena has had at least one runner in the finals in five of the last six seasons and has its most representatives at MIS since 2018 when nine Wildcats competed.
In the Division 4 boys and girls races, Alcona’s Carter Upper and Sara Decker will also compete, as will Rogers City’s Matt Wilbert.
The Division 1 girls race begins at 2:10 p.m. Saturday and the Division 1 boys race begins at 3:30 p.m. The Division 4 girls race will be the first of the day at 9:30 a.m. and the Division 4 boys race commences at 10:50 a.m.
In just her first varsity season, Heath has continued to improve for the Wildcats and said she achieved all her goals for the year. Last month, she recorded a PR of 20:52 at the Northern Michigan Championship.
“Kaelyn gets to go to states as a freshman and we’re so excited about that,” Alpena coach Joe Donajkowski said. “We’ve got three girls going and it’s awesome that young girls like Emma and Kaelyn are going early on. That sets them up good for the future.”
Szymanski, who qualified for the finals during her freshman and junior years, will compete at MIS for the third time. She’s consistently been among the top finishers in every race she’s competed in this season and opened the season with a win at the Rau Invitational.
Now she’s got her eyes on an all-state finish — awarded to the top 30 runners in each division. Last year, Szymanski finished 41st in the Division 1 girls race.
“I’m excited,” Szymanski said. “It’s a lot of reassurance in myself and my ability, but also I feel like it’s a tribute to my coaches and my teammates and how hard we’ve worked all season.”
Dickens, who became a key contributor for Alpena during her freshman year, has continued to improve this season. She set a new PR several times during the season with her best coming at the Northern Michigan Championship (19:50). A week before that, she won the Northern Lower Peninsula Invitational.
Along with Szymanski and Allen, she was among four Alpena runners who recently earned all-Big North Conference honors as well.
“(It’s) exciting,” Dickens said. “It (the season) has been really good. My goal has been to keep working on my times and I’ve done that.”
Allen, who recently committed to Alpena Community College, has been a leader for Apena’s boys team and has six top-10 finishes this season with a pair of wins
Making it to the finals was among Allen’s top goals for the season and he said he feels good about this weekend’s race.
“I feel really confident going into it. I think I’ll do pretty well,” Allen said. “I know what I can do and I know I’ve worked hard for it.”
After working hard all season, the Alpena quartet hopes to end the year on a high note. As a veteran, Szymanski said it’s important to enjoy the atmosphere and accomplishment of making the finals, but also to remember the race and the preparation for it are no different than other races.
“I heard this quote, ‘It’s like the Olympics, but you don’t have to remake the wheel’ Yes, it’s bigger, but you don’t have to change your approach,” Szymanski said. “It’s completely different than anything we do during the season. Obviously it’s significantly larger than any other race we’ll go to, but I think it’s just important to relax.”