HOUGHTON -- The ultimate prize awaits Saturday at the U.P. Finals cross country meet, and there are Copper Country runners with a shot at claiming it.
Teams will converge upon Gentz's Homestead Golf Course in Chocolay Township, and in Division 1, host Marquette will be formidable in both boys' and girls' competition.
On the boys' side, the deep Houghton Gremlins will make a play for their second championship in three years and their fourth top-two finish in the last five.
The boys’ field runs out of the starting chute at McLain State Park during last week’s WestPAC?championship meet. The U.P. Finals will be Saturday at Gentz’s Homestead Golf Course in Chocolay Township. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
At the top of the list are WestPAC Finals winner David Jaszczak and Jacob Colling, who finished third individually last year. Both missed a significant portion of the season due to injury, giving an opportunity for the Gremlins to build their depth with runners like WestPAC most valuable performer Isaac Stone.
"The combination of those guys is pretty hard to beat," Houghton coach Traci Welch said after last week's WestPAC Finals.
That depth may have to be what gets the Gremlins to the top, as the individual race will feature Marquette's Cole Rieboldt and Lance Rambo and Escanaba's Eric Cousineau.
On the girls' side, Marquette appears to be a prohibitive team favorite, though Kameron Burmeister (Menominee)'s win at the Great Northern Conference meet last week raised some eyebrows, given that it came at the expense of Marquette's Lindsey Rudden.
Rudden, a runaway winner of all three distance events at U.P. Track and Field finals in June, ended up third in the meet behind freshman teammate Amber Huebner, held in Stephenson.
Rudden had an undefeated freshman season going until collapsing on the course at cross country Finals last season, setting up Calumet's Tara Kiilunen to win the event for a nearly-unprecedented fourth straight time.
Kiilunen's sister Leah won the WestPAC meet last week and will lead a Calumet squad trying to defend its championship. Sprinter-turned-cross country ace Chelsea Jacques has multiple race wins to her name and would be the favorite of any race that came down to a finishing kick.
"Both runners are extremely strong. They're right where they need to be for this time of year," Calumet coach Arnie Kinnunen said.
In Division 2, coach Matt Dennis's Hancock teams both have a decent shot to win. Hancock's boys' team last won a U.P. title in 1978, with the last girls' championship coming in 1990.
On the girls' side, Abby Tembruell should be in the lead group after cracking the 21-minute mark to take third individually in the WestPAC meet. She'll face challenges from defending champ Jessica Gering of Ironwood, Kyra Johnson of Norway, Natalie Beaulieu of Newberry and Lily Calcaterra of St. Ignace.
Some things have broken in Hancock's favor already. Manistique's two best runners, Holly Blowers and Olivia Holmberg, will be unavailable due to a family function, and Gering will have run the Indianhead Conference meet just Thursday.
On the boys' side, Hancock catches a break with three-time defending champs Stephenson dropping into Division 3. Hayden Heikkinen, who ran an 18:18 at McLain State Park, was the top Bulldog runner last week.
In Division 3, the eastern end is expected to prove tough, with Munising, Pickford and Cedarville putting in the fastest times over the course of the season.
The boys' competition also looks like Cedarville and Pickford are among the favorites,with North Central also contending.