By John Raffel
Track & field championships take center stage on Saturday in Michigan with teams like Detroit Country Day hoping to make a move on the top spot.
Dave Wilson, Country Day's head coach, guided his team to a runner-up finish last season. The Yellowjackets qualified nine boys for the finals and will rely on them to take the next step.
"Williamston will be the odds on favorite in Division 3," Wilson said. "They're very strong, in my estimation. It will be a terrific challenge for us. Albion and Saginaw Swan Valley are also strong. But we're hoping to be in the mix. It will take some of our best performances of the year, which I think the guys are ready to give."
Country Day's senior sprinter Chris Rucker is the defending state champ in Division 3 in the 100-meter dash.
"This year, he's also one of the top seeds in the 400," Wilson said. "He's trying to score as many points for his team as he can."
One of the state's top senior-to-be football prospects, Jonas Gray, and Ryan Tan are also running the 100-metrer dash and hope to help Country Day dominate that event.
Erik Williams is also strong in the sprints for Country Day. All four state title meets are in the Grand Rapids area.
Holland West Ottawa was the runner-up in boys tennis in the state's largest class, Division I, last season. But with an almost entirely new cast this spring, the Panthers have already made coach Matt Bradley proud entering the state finals this weekend.
"Right now, we are ranked seventh in the state. Our goal is to finish in the top five," Bradley said. "I would say Ann Arbor Pioneer would be favored for the title again.
"We're not as strong as last year when we graduated seven players. We have seven new players. Everyone is doing very well. As a team, I'm very proud of the kids to make it to the state finals. We're a young team this year."
Top players for Holland West Ottawa include No. 3 singles standout Ryne Dushane, a freshman, who has a 24-2 record. Rob Schutt, a senior, is 23-3 at No. 2 singles.
"Our division at the state finals is very competitive," Bradley said.
Baseball teams enter district competition this weekend with hopes of being in the state title games June 16. But if Howard City Tri County advances to the state finals, it will be without a lengthy winning streak.
The Vikings had a 13-game winning steak snapped Wednesday in a 2-1 loss to Grand Rapids Northview in the regular-season doubleheader finale for the Vikings. Rory Dill had a one-hitter going into the bottom of the seventh inning but then allowed three-straight hits to open the inning.
The Vikings won the second game of the doubleheader, 7-3. Now, they hope to go 7-0, which a team would have to do to win a state title.
"In a one-game elimination season, anything can happen," Tri County coach Chris Overbeek said. "We've done a good job of getting our kids to score runs."
One team that might advance to the finals is last year's Division I state runner-up, Escanaba, located in the south central Upper Peninsula. Escanaba enters the districts with a 24-5 record.
"We're not as strong as last year," Esky coach Dan Lauscher said. "We had nine graduating seniors from that team. I'm starting four sophomores and a freshman this year."
Lauscher is relying on his top two pitchers - senior Chris Walechka and junior Garrick Fisher - to take Escanaba a long way in the playoffs.
"We've only had one loss between those two all season," Lauscher said. "Hopefully, we can go a long ways with them."
Fisher is also leading the team in hitting at .436.
"I suspect West Branch Ogemaw Heights will be a tough team again in the tournament," Lauscher said. "We beat them in the regionals last year, 3-2, but only because they made an error in the eighth inning."
Troy has had powerhouse teams in girls lacrosse in past years but the Detroit-area schools of Troy Athens High and Troy High were both eliminated early in the districts this sping.
"We lost to Athens in the playoffs 13-11," Troy High coach Liz Waters said. "We have quite a rivalry going with them. But then Birmingham United beat Athens to stop their state title bid.
"We had two pretty good games with Athens this year. Both were close and exciting. They had strong second-half efforts against us."
Troy High hopes to be a state contender next season with a strong middle school program beginning to pump quality players to the high school level, Waters said.
The state lacrosse finals are June 9 in the Detroit area.