From August to October, through sweltering days under the sun to breezy afternoons with a chill in the air, the one constant all year during the local cross country circuit has been the dominance from the usual names. Team-wise, it’s been the Houghton Gremlins and Chassell Panthers. Individually, Clayton Sayen and Lela Rautiola have ruled.
On Thursday the regulars had their defining crowning achievement, with the Houghton boys and Chassell girls winning the West-PAC meet at Kilpela Farms, while Sayen and Rautiola each added another victory before they were named the West-PAC Runners of the Year.
Sayen recorded a personal best by 5 seconds, finishing in 16 minutes, 22.82 seconds, and Rautiola avenged a defeat at the West Iron County Invite on Monday with another first-place finish (20:25.73).
“I felt borderline amazing,” Sayen said. “The weather was perfect, and I was feeling good the whole way. The last mile, I felt the best I ever felt in my entire life.
“The meets building up to this, I’ve been trying to lower my times but couldn’t find it. I was just running the same times over and over. To end the regular season on a note on a PR is the biggest confidence booster I’ve ever had going into (U.P.) Finals. I honestly feel like I can win. I’m feeling so good.”
Sayen’s victory earned him a clean sweep of first-place finishes in local meets, capping one of the great individual cross country seasons by a Copper Country athlete. His closest encounter with defeat came at the Calumet Swedetown Trails when he had to top teammate Seth Helman in a friendly game of rock-paper-scissors as the two made their way to the finish line. Sayen’s scissors ensured a victory over Helman’s paper.
“He’s worked really hard,” Houghton head coach Traci Welch said of Sayen. “He’s got a phenomenal kick and has the distance to go. But at the end, he just has that kick that nobody really has.”
Despite finishing second at the WIC Invite, Rautiola was happy for Calumet freshman Clarity Gipp, who earned her first-career win. Still, Rautiola’s competitive drive naturally wanted her to reclaim victory — and she did. Gipp continued her strong freshman season with a second-place finish.
“I felt like I had to make up for Monday,” Rautiola said. “Since that race was shorter, I had a really fast start, I felt like. This race I told myself that I would start out like myself and not let other girls tire me out if they start super fast.
“I started at a good pace, and once I got the lead, I felt like I got more confidence.”
Rautiola was the top finisher for a Panthers team that remained undefeated at local meets. Jenna Pietila took third (20:14.98), Paige Sleeman was fifth (21:47.59), Gwen Kangas finished seventh (22:13.81) and Meg Hokenson came in 11th (22:33.93).
“I’m thrilled for the team,” Chassell head coach Marco Guidotti said. “They’re super competitive, every single one of them. The team success that they’ve had all year long means a lot to each and every one of them.”
Houghton’s Anabel Needham (fourth, 21:16.62), Dollar Bay’s Natalie Maxson (sixth, 21:58.78) and Houghton’s Kieran Storer (ninth, 22:20.86) were the other top local girls finishers.
On the boys side, Houghton’s Seth Helman (second, 16:54.34) and Leif Odegard (third, 17:16.61) continued to finish in order behind Sayen. Connor Jackson took eight (17:47.14), and Joe Wood finished 10th (17:52.89) to pace the Gremlins.
Similar to the Chassell girls, the Houghton boys won every local meet.
“Our guys just run phenomenally,” Welch said. “Last year some of our kids didn’t run like this. The improvement they’ve shown over the year and how they’ve run together as a team is probably one of the best teams I’ve had.”
Chassell’s Ben Tuomi took seventh (17:43.50).
The teams will now prepare for U.P. Finals at Munising on Oct. 21.
The West-PAC All-Conference Teams
First Team Boys
Most Valuable Runner – Clayton Sayen, Houghton.
Seth Helman, Houghton; Leif Odegard, Houghton; Isaiah Aili, Gogebic; Ben Tuomi, Chassell; Devon Beyers, Gogebic; Uriah, Aili, Gogebic.
Second Team Boys
Joe Wood, Houghton; Connor Jackson, Houghton; Cade Mazzon, Gogebic; Nikolai Huotari, Houghton; Tim Rowe, Gogebic; Kurtis Kytta, Chassell; Ilhan Onder, Calumet.
First Team Girls
Most Valuable Runner – Lela Rautiola, Chassell, Anabel Needham, Houghton; Clarity Gipp, Calumet; Jenna Pietila, Chassell; Gwen Kangas, Chassell; Paige Sleeman, Chassell; Natalie Maxson, Dollar Bay.
Second Team Girls
Taylor Clark, West Iron; Avery Bociek, West Iron; Meg Hokenson, Chassell; Bailey Poyhonen, Dollar Bay; Amara Berg, Calumet; Sarah Dix, Baraga; Allyson Fenton, Hancock.
West-PAC Meet at Kilpela Farms Team Scores
Girls team scores
1. Chassell 27; Calumet 82; 3. Houghton 85; 4. Jeffers 121; 5. Hancock 125; 6. Dollar Bay 138; 7. West Iron County 175; 8. Gogebic 190.
Girls top 10
1. Lela Rautiola, Chassell, 20:25.73; 2. Clarity Gipp, Calumet, 20:44.31; 3. Jenna Pietila, Chassell, 20:14.96; 4. Anabel Needham, Houghton, 21:16.62; 5. Paige Sleeman, Chassell, 21:47.59; 6. Natalie Maxson, Dollar Bay, 21:58.78; 7. Gwen Kangas, Chassell, 22:13.81; 8. Kieran Storer, Houghton, 22:20.86; 9. Naomi Ailli, Gogebic, 22:23.66; 10. Keena Larson, Jeffers, 22:25.44.
Boys team scores
1. Houghton 24; 2. Gogebic 38; 3. Chassell 83; 4. Calumet 127; 5. Hancock 169; 6. Republic-Michigamme 170; 7. Jeffers 178; 8. Dollar Bay 189; 9. Watersmeet 227.
Boys top 10
1. Clayton Sayen, Houghton, 16:22.82; 2. Seth Helman, Houghton, 16:54.34; 3. Leif Odegard, Houghton, 17:16.61; 4. Isaiah Ailli, Gogebic, 17:32.43; 5. Uriah Ailli, Gogebic, 17:36.21; 6. Devon Byers, Gogebic, 17:39.26; 7. Ben Tuomi, Chassell, 17:43.50; 8. Connor Jackson, Houghton, 17:47.14; 9. Cade Mazzon, Gogebic, 17:49.88; 10. Joe Wood, Houghton, 17:52.89.