Houghton boys, Chassell girls aim to finish stellar seasons with U.P. championships

The start of the boys race at Kilpela Farms, Oct. 12, during the West-PAC meet. (Bryce Derouin/Daily Mining Gazette)

MUNISING — Despite dominating the local cross country circuit by winning every local meet, the Houghton boys and Chassell girls want to be known for a bigger legacy: U.P. champions. 

Both will be among the favorites at U.P. Finals at the Pictured Rocks Golf Course on Saturday. Chassell has yet to lose to a Division 3 school, while Houghton has won every meet they competed in except for a second-place finish in the Dale Phillips Invite back on Aug. 31 in Marquette. 

“We feel strong, but we’re staying focused,” Chassell head coach Marco Guidotti said. “There are going to be teams at U.P. Finals that we haven’t seen all year.”

One of those teams that could challenge Chassell is Cedarville, who won the Division 3 title last year with a team score of 34, edging Chassell’s 46.

“That’s on their minds,” Guidotti said about his team thinking back to last season’s loss to Cedarville. “We’ve built something pretty strong the last couple of years, and I know they’re motivated to keep building on the tradition that they really have a strong hand in.”

Chassell’s Lela Rautiola will be defending her individual U.P. title from last year. Rautiola continued with another strong season this year after being named the West-PAC Girls Runner of the Year. She’s regularly been Chassell’s top finisher, while Jenna Pietila, Gwen Kangas, Paige Sleeman and Meg Hokenson also earned West-PAC honors.

“We all push each other. Practices are competitive with all the girls,” Rautiola said. “Everyone I feel like has improved. It’s a friendly competition, but I love that all the girls are like that.

“With all the strong finishes at the strong conference meet, I feel pretty good about our chances at (Finals).”

Some of Rautiola’s top competition at Finals will be Munising’s Madeline Peramaki and Alyssa Webber. At Pictured Rocks on Sept. 26, Rautiola took fourth (20:42.5) behind Peramaki (20:40.2) and finished a spot ahead of Webber (20:46.4).

“Lela will have strong competition, but she’ll take that in stride and be really motivated to make sure she pushes hard for the D3 win,” Guidotti said.

Similar to the Chassell girls, the Houghton boys went undefeated in local meets and have been victorious ever since the Dale Phillips Invite.

“These guys have been working for Finals all year,” Houghton head coach Traci Welch said. “Marquette’s going to be tough, and there are some other kids in there who will be tough, but I certainly think we can do it. It just depends on how we all come out.”

Houghton’s Clayton Sayen is the Gremlins’ best bet at an individual title. Sayen and the rest of the competitors will be chasing Negaunee’s Colton Yesney, who will enter the race as the favorite. Yesney won the El Harger Invite at Picture Rocks, finishing in 16:05.8, while Sayen took second (16:45.5). But after Sayen’s personal record Thursday at Kilpela Farms (16:22.82), the West-PAC Boys Runner of the Year believes Saturday will be his best chance at beating Yesney.

“I’m ready. I know I can go faster yet,” Sayen said. “I feel like I can get back down to 16-flat by Finals. I’m gunning for him. I know Yesney is going to be a really big challenge to take down; he’s obviously the best runner in the U.P. right now.

“I’ve had my luck against Garrett Rudden and Luke Rambo of Marquette; they’re a bit more my speed. Yesney is the next challenge to take down, and I’m ready for it.”

Seth Helman has regularly finished behind Sayen, but it’s been the emergence of Leif Odegard that has helped Houghton take the top three spots in meets. Joe Wood, Connor Jackson and Nikolai Huotari also earned West-PAC honors, in addition to Sayen, Helman and Odegard.

“We’ve just had such depth on our team,” Welch said. “There’s always been competition in all of them but it’s been friendly competition. It’s just phenomenal to coach a group of kids like this that work hard but are close as a team.”