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September 26, 2012

Grosse Pointe South cross country ranked as best in nation

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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Grosse Pointe South cross country ranked as best in nation
From left, Haley Meier, Hannah Meier and Christina Firl represent Grosse Pointe South at the MAC Red jamboree Sept. 11. South won the meet, and is ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation.

Despite all the success that Grosse Pointe South’s girls cross country team has enjoyed, which includes 25 regional titles in 33 years, coach Steve Zaranek believes the Blue Devils snuck up on teams when they won the program’s first state title last year.

Given that accomplishment, they aren’t likely to fly under anybody’s radar in 2012.

And if a state title is somehow not enough to grab the attention of its opponents, then South’s current ranking from the National High School Coaches Association as the No. 1 team in the nation almost certainly will.

But if the Blue Devils are feeling any pressure, they certainly aren’t showing it.

South has won four meets thus far, including the MSU Spartan Invitational. Because the invitational includes 40 of the best teams from around the state from different division levels, it is even bigger than the state finals. Only the top teams are picked to race in the event, and winning it only helps to serve notice that the Blue Devils appear to be poised and ready to defend their state title.

And although being ranked as the top team in the country may have a nice ring to it, it is not a replacement for Zaranek’s chief ambition.

“Our ultimate goal with our varsity girls is to repeat as state champions,” he said. “We’re definitely going after that — no ifs, ands or buts. The girls are really focused on that; it’s something they’re shooting for. They know we don’t have to be a hundred percent right now, but they’re working really hard to get better and better, and peak (in) early November.”

South is able to set its sights so high because of its numerous talents, including senior twins Hannah and Haley Meier, and sophomore Ersula Farrow. All three runners are nationally ranked. Add talented teammates Kelsie Schwartz and Christina Firl to the mix, and Zaranek likes his team’s chances anytime it arrives at the starting line.

“They’re the core of this just incredible cross country group that we have,” he said. “It’s phenomenal that we have such a great group of runners. We’re led by Hannah and Haley. They’ve been instrumental in every state title we’ve had (two track and field, and one cross country). They’re just remarkable young women. These five girls help give us that ranking of No. 1 team in Michigan and No. 1 team in the whole country.”

Zaranek has been at the helm of South’s cross country program since its inception in 1979. He recalls that there were seven girls on the original team.

Thirty-three years later, the Blue Devils have 120 girls on the squad, which Zaranek said makes South’s cross country program the largest in the state. By comparison, according to Zaranek, the average roster size for most programs is between 10 and 15.

Zaranek has an idea as to why South’s program has enjoyed such tremendous growth.

“What happens over the years with a program like this — it just feeds on itself,” he said. “We attract the best student-athletes in the school, without a doubt. The team grade point average always is right around 3.7 for the entire team, which is extraordinary. We have great kids. And these girls become our best recruiters. They talk (the program) up all the time. Success breeds success.

“Building it has been really fun over the years. We have four coaches that work with the girls every day, and they’re just so good. Between track (2011 and 2012 state champions) and cross country, these state titles (are) really rare — back-to-back-to-back. But that stuff, it’ll come and go. But even when it goes, I know we’re still going to be left with a really good, consistent, quality program.”

South is next scheduled to be in action at 10 a.m. Sept. 29 when it runs in the Legends Classic at Saline High School.

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.