Utica seniors Emma Puwal, left, and Zoe Zeiser compete in the 200-meter.

Utica seniors Emma Puwal, left, and Zoe Zeiser compete in the 200-meter.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Chieftains girls track snaps decade-long drought

Team makes impressive showing at states

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Shelby-Utica News | Published June 3, 2024


UTICA — It was a year that shined a bright light through the clouds that have overshadowed the Utica girls cross-country and track and field teams.

For the first time since 2006, the girls cross-country team qualified for the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 1 state finals in the fall, but the girls weren’t finished yet.

Following a dominant showing in the Macomb Area Conference White, courtesy of cross-country stars such as sophomore Brooke McFarland, sophomore Siene Muraszewski, freshman Emma Brown, junior Sophia Aquino, senior Eleanor Kroetsch, junior Norah Lesner and freshman Lilly McNair, Utica girls track and field went unbeaten in the league for the first time since 2014, posting a 5-0 record en route to a league championship. Utica also won the MAC White divisional meet for the first time since 2016.

“The distance girls have continued to elevate and step up, and it’s so cool to see girls like Brooke (McFarland), who are running top-10 times in our school history, which is significant because our history is deep and has some success,” Utica head coach Chris Scott said. “Brooke has stepped up, and then you have freshmen like Emma Brown who filled some big roles and are doing some big things. In some ways, they’re overshadowed by Addison (Johnson), who’s at the top of her game. It’s still not to be unnoticed, because they’re doing high-level things.”

Johnson, an Oakland University commit for track and cross-country, would’ve undoubtedly been part of the cross-country state finals squad, but injuries plagued her cross-country season.

In September of 2023, Johnson suffered a metatarsal fracture, sidelining her for the full cross-country season.

Johnson began running again in November, competing in the indoor track season, but it’s been the outdoor season where Johnson looks stronger than ever.

“It’s been great,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t do it without the support of my teammates around me and the coaches. I got that stress fracture during cross-country season, but I still cross-trained every day. I swam and I biked. I just made sure I still found other ways to keep my body in shape and keep my body healthy so when I came back, I was feeling good.”

The comeback season for Johnson was cemented at the MHSAA Division 1 Region 10 Championship at Romeo High School when Johnson posted 11:04.36 in the 3,200-meter, breaking the school record and qualifying for states for the second-consecutive season.

Brown also qualified for states in the 3,200-meter with a 11:13.12, just beating the additional qualifying time of 11:15 needed for states.

It was a feeling of relief and accomplishment for the veteran runner, but she wasn’t done yet with the state finals, held June 1 at East Kentwood High School, still in front of her.

Johnson turned in a 20th-place finish at the MHSAA Division 1 state finals while Brown earned 25th, a promising finish to an incredible season for the freshman.

“I think just going through that made me mentally tougher and more determined than ever just to make this the comeback season from not being able to have a cross-country season, but being able to have a super strong senior season to finish out my high school career going into college,” Johnson said.

Senior Zoe Zeiser punched her state finals ticket in the 200-meter and the long jump, the latter of which she was crowned regional champion in, while senior Mckenzie Reese qualified in the shot put.

Zeiser put on a show stopping performance in long jump, placing third and earning all-state honors. Reese finished 21st in the shot put while senior Zachary Conley, the lone state qualifier on the boys side, placed 27th in the 110-meter hurdles.

Zeiser said she and the team felt more committed this season and she credited her coach’s workout routine for the team’s success.

“Our coach (Scott) helped put us into workouts that were more specifically for each of our events, so we’d split up into a mid-distance group, sprinter group and distance group,” Zeiser said. “Certain days, we’d have different workouts. I think this year our workouts were definitely harder, but it definitely did pay off in the end.”

Other consistent contributors for Utica were sophomore Amya Williamson, senior Emma Puwal, junior Allison Tuttle, senior Alexis Pokley, senior Catherine Hoff, senior Allison Polk, freshman Angel Ross, and freshman Kylee Backus.

Utica needed all hands on deck when it went up against league rival Fraser, who was 4-0 at the time, for a league-deciding matchup on May 6 at Howard C. Richards Middle School. Fraser and Utica are both teams hoping for a MAC Red promotion in a league alignment year, and Utica came out on top to secure the White title with a 79-58 win.

“Last year and the year before that, Fraser was the first meet of the season,” Scott said. “We knew that our standing in the league may come down to the first meet of the season. This year when we got our schedule, Fraser was the last meet of the season. Pending any surprises, which there weren’t any this year, we had a feeling the league might come down to the last meet of the year against Fraser, and it sure did.”

It’ll be a bit of an adjustment next year for Utica after graduating seniors in key events, but seasons like this are the ones where a foundation is built and continued on by future classes.

Utica has the young core to do it, but it will have a target on its back in the MAC White next year if it stays, or it will look to make some noise in a grueling MAC Red league loaded with talented teams.