So much drama had built up heading into the Nov. 4 MHSAA Division 1 boys cross country state meet, you’d have thought the script had been written by a Hollywood director (Scorsese, maybe?).
During the previous 10 weeks, the stage was set for a duel at Michigan International Speedway featuring defending champion Northville and rival Brighton, which had defeated the Mustangs twice this season in a pair of prestigious invitationals.
“In the grand scheme of things, we knew the margin of victory was only going to be a couple of seconds either way,” noted Northville’s No. 1 runner, senior Brendan Herger.
“Brighton beat us in both the big races this season — by a tie-breaker at Michigan State and they absolutely whooped us in Portage,” added junior Ethan Powell, the Mustangs’ No. 2 performer. “We knew it was going to take 100% effort to defend our title.”
Down to the wire
The race exceeded all expectations as the Mustangs — fueled by an out-of-the-blue performance by a super sophomore — finished with 128 points, 13 fewer than the runner-up Bulldogs.
The triumph was Northville High School’s third boys team state title in any sport since the its swimming-and-diving team took the crown in 1972. In addition to the cross country team’s 2022 championship, the Mustangs boys golf team placed first this past spring.
“What made this year’s team unique or special,” said Northville Head Coach Tim Dalton, “was their resilience. After they lost to Brighton in Portage — that was their worst collective race they had run as a team in the past two seasons — they were defeated; they thought their goal of winning a state title had gone out the window.
“But after sitting down and talking as a group about what it would take to get back on track, they ultimately closed the season with a heckuva stretch.”
The Mustangs’ unsung hero was sophomore Ben Hartigan, who — after not cracking the team’s top-seven varsity spots as a freshman in 2022 — finished with an All-State-earning time of 15 minutes, 37.7 seconds, placing him 24th overall.
Northville was paced by Herger (who finished third in 15:05.6) and Powell (13th in 15:28.0).
“We knew going into the state meet we had our big two — Brendan and Ethan — up front, but we really needed a number three runner to step up and we needed our number five to finish as close as possible to Brighton’s number five,” Dalton explained.
“Ben came out and ran his best time ever by 20-some seconds. It was truly incredible what he did that day.”
Dalton said Hartigan’s timely PR wasn’t totally unexpected given the 10th-grader’s will to win.
“Ben is an ultra-competitor,” Dalton said. “I think he started to build his confidence at the conference and regional meets. He realized he could go out with Ethan, our number two runner, through the first mile and be able to hold on for the second and third miles (high school cross country races are 3.1 miles).
“Personally, I think at the state meet Ben just found himself going out quick and he realized, oh my gosh, I’m in the top 30. I can do this.”
Dalton had high praise for Herger and Powell in the wake of them leading the program to legacy-level heights.
“I argue that they are two of the best male distance runners ever at Northville High School, and we’ve had plenty of outstanding athletes,” said Dalton. “It’s special as a coach to have both of them on the same team at the same time. Brendan will graduate as the best ever, with individual cross country and track-and-field records in the 800, mile, 5K and four-by-four. He’s something else.
“Those two make each other better — and they make their teammates better as well. “Ethan beat Brendan early in the year at Cass Benton to set our school record on the course, but Brendan came back our next race there and retook the record. They push each other to be as great as they are.”
Also scoring at the state meet for Northville were junior Nick Barretto (54th in 16:05.1) and senior Nicholas Yaquinto (68th in 16:14.8). Northville’s state meet lineup also included freshman Brandon Cloud, who finished 78th, and junior Ishaan Kundapur (107th).
Despite the magnitude of the race, Herger said the Mustangs went through the same pre-race routine as they do before every competition.
“After we complete our strides a few minutes before the race, coach brings us together as says, ‘Take a deep breath, take it all in, look around’,” Herger said. “We then hug one another and exchange fist bumps, count to three and say, ‘Mustangs!’, then get locked in.”
And locked in they were.
“They say the toughest season of your career is the season after you get really good,” Powell concluded. “You’re expected to do well, which can be mentally challenging because there’s no room to mess up.”
The Mustangs embraced the challenge and — for the second straight season — etched their names in the school’s record book.
It was nothing short of a Hollywood ending.
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or email@example.com.