BROOKLYN – In the end, the Division 1, 2 and 3 boys’ races at Saturday’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula State Finals at Michigan International Speedway would all have winners running between 15:04 and 15:07.
But it was the D2 battle the arguably had the most intrigue and star power at the top. Most considered Cedar Springs senior Connor Mora to be the best distance runner in the state coming back this fall, with the 4:10.72 mile he authored in June being the prime piece of evidence. Mora got off to a bad start this fall with a 15th-place finish at the Spartan Invite, but since then he’d been untouchable – including a 15:18.8 triumph in the Portage D2 race and a 14:54.01 scorcher at his regional meet last week.
In the other corner, figuratively speaking, was Mason senior Tanner Hinkle. With the best 3,200 by a non-senior last spring – at 9:14.69 – and a 14:53 track 5,000 to his credit, he could make an argument for being the best distance runner in Michigan. His season, too, had been imperfect: He was outkicked for the win at Spartans, and got fourth at Carson City in a race Mora won. But with other major wins and a 15:05.6 best this fall, he had the creds to give Mora a great fight.
And a fight it was. Mora also has good 800 speed and Hinkle is someone you imagine as a marathoner more than a miler. Hinkle was going to have to run the kick out of Mora if he could, so he gave it his best shot. Mora shadowed him through a solid first mile of 4:46, then they went through two in 9:48. Hinkle tried to turn it up, but he wasn’t able to accelerate enough to ditch his rival.
With around 1,200 to go, Mora could see he felt good enough to start pushing and so he did. Both runners revved the pace up, but Mora gradually gapped Hinkle after 800 to go, with the margin growing in the final 300. Final times: Mora 15:04.2, Hinkle 15:09.8.
“Tanner took it out pretty hard,” said Mora afterward. “He’s a great competitor. I went in to the race ready to adjust to whatever the race threw at me. At the 2-mile I felt confident and I think I passed him for good with about 800 to go.”
“We generally ran an honest race from the start,” said Hinkle. “I never really surged much, but the whole race I was pushing and didn’t really let up.”
Big Rapids senior Clark Ruiz was third in 15:32.1.
Hinkle’s Mason team, by the way, came in as the defending champ, but knew it had little chance to win. They have a super first three – junior Mason VanDyke was fourth and senior Alex Whitmer seventh – but more than a minute to their fourth man.
So the team battle came down to D2#1 St. Clair trying to claim its first crown against a deep #2 St. Joseph team that lacked front-running firepower and a #4 Linden squad that, like Mason, had three sub-16 guys at the top but not as strong all the way through.
St. Clair trailed Linden through those three runners, but then their 4-5 men Dakota Hazel and Andrew Snyder came in scoring 34th and 35th, and when Linden’s fifth came in 24 seconds later, St. Clair had its title. The Saints tallied 114, followed by Linden 128 and St. Joseph 153. The school had finished in the top 10 six times, but never at the top.