Fremont boys state qualifying team L-R: Adam Ward, Conor Somers, Nathan Walker, Benjamin Paige, Gavin Shuler, Brennan Shuler, Joshua Zerfas and Nathan Johnson. They are bookended by Taylor Mater on the left and Taava Johnson on the right who both ran impressive times at the Regional meet and qualified for the individual Girls State Championship race.- Photo by Emily Paige
By Mike Paige
The Fremont boys cross country team has seen plenty of success over the years. Today they head to the Division 2 State Finals as a team for the 7th straight year. With 9 state titles Fremont is tied with Concord and Napoleon and trails only Kalamazoo Central (11) for the most in the Lower Peninsula. The UP runs their own race each year and Marquette has won 23 titles.
Fremont’s first six titles were won under legendary coach, Rich Tompkins. Tompkins coached Fremont for years and instituted many of the traditions and training rituals employed today. Fremont’s current coach, Cliff Somers, ran for Tompkins and was a part of the state title team in 1989. Somers has coached the Packers to three state titles, 2007, 2015 and 2019. Two traditions of many that Somers employs from his mentor are the 500 mile club and team camp. The 500 mile club is the tradition to award runners that run a set number of miles in the summer. Somers preaches that championships are won and lost through dedication to training and summer miles are a huge part of that.
It is easy to pick out runners early in the season that do not dedicate themselves to training in the summer and those miles cannot be made up during the season. The reward for Fremont runners who make that commitment is a trip to East Lansing for the annual MSU Invitational. As it is a reward for summer miles, Fremont does not send the whole team to the meet. While placing well individually among the 300 or so runners in the Elite Division race each year, the team score is not necessarily reflective of the Fremont boys’ talent.
Team camp is a week-long journey to a spot on the Pine River for running, canoeing and team bonding. There is a mileage requirement for camp as well, but the majority of the team attends each year, running 70 miles +/- over the six days. The sprint run into camp, the 14 mile run to Caberfae and running “dunies” are Fremont traditions at camp.
The core of the boys current team has been dominating races since the 6th grade. Nathan Walker, Benjamin Paige and Joshua Zerfas, all seniors, have regularly been at the top of the leaderboard. For most of those years senior Colton Best was part of the mix, often claiming the #2 spot on the team’s top five. Senior Adam Ward joined the group sophomore year and has fit in well, often competing directly with Paige and Zerfas for the 3, 4 and 5 spots on the talent laden team.
The top spot among this group has belonged to Nathan Walker. Walker recently committed to attend and run cross country at Purdue University. He has set the bar high, setting the course record at many of the area courses, including an incredible 16:11 this year at Fremont’s hilly home course at Branstrom Park. Only four boys have finished with a time of 17:00 or better at Branstrom Park: Walker, Matthew Zerfas, Riley Klingel and James Lanciaux.
The 6th grade race at the Portage mega-meet in 2014 was when it first became apparent that the boys possessed special talent. In a field of 252 runners the boys took four of the top 19 spots en route to a first place tie with Portage North. They won the Portage meet outright in the 8th grade placing five runners in the top 54 places of the field of 727 runners. That 5th place was occupied by 7th grader Conor Somers, son of Cliff Somers. The team finished first in every meet that 8th grade year, except one that Paige was forced to miss due to injury.
When in 9th grade the boys had great senior leadership in Ben Schmidt, Ben DeVries and James Pekel, all holdovers from the previous 3 years of excellence turned in by 2017 grads Sam Kaastra, Matthew Zerfas, Sam Stitt and Cole Hamilton, state champions in 2015 and two-time runners up. Schmidt and DeVries provided great mentorship to the younger boys and DeVries has continued to be a big part of the program, often attending meets, running cool-downs and providing valuable insight into races and opposing runners. The 2017 season saw Ben Schmidt dominate most races with Walker and the other boys close behind. Regional runner-up and 6th place at the State Finals that year may not have been the exciting finish the freshman boys had hoped for, but it provided a base of humility and an appreciation for the work required to get to the top that they would employ in future years.
In their sophomore season, Nathan Walker won all but the biggest races the team ran that year. Now joined again by Conor Somers, the team dominated races from start to finish, often having many runners, even beyond the top seven varsity runners, finish with excellent times. Again, outstanding senior leadership played a role in helping form this team into the juggernaut they were to become. Captain Cy Frankhouser and Colton Christoffersen were outstanding runners and role models for the young team. The only team better that year in Division 2 was Chelsea, behind whom Fremont finished at both the Portage and State meets, the only two meets of the year that the full complement of Fremont boys did not win.
Junior year saw the boys win every team competition in dominant fashion. They won the Portage meet by 67 points and the State Finals by 108 both over runner-up Otsego. Usually led by Walker and Somers and then some combination of Ward, Zerfas and Paige, the solid top five were strongly complemented by Gavin and Brennan Shuler, Nathan Johnson, Jackson Fair, Gavin Orcutt, Seven Laroue, Colton Best, Colton Isenhart and Bryce Cosens, many of whom would have been the top varsity runners on virtually any other team in the state. Exchange student Mikko Vesma also contributed heavily to the success of the team and their state championship.
As they ready themselves today for the 3 hour journey to Brooklyn, MI and the 2020 State Finals, the boys are likely reflecting on a bit different kind of season than they expected for their senior year. Many of the bigger meets, MSU and Portage notably, were cancelled due to concerns about COVID-19 and the ability to socially distance at such large events. The boys were however able to run at invite only meets at Otsego and Grand Rapids and test their mettle against some of the top teams in the state. They won both meets in convincing fashion, scoring 51 points at Otsego and 33 at Grand Rapids. The boys placed first in each conference meet and the pre-regional and regional meets never scoring higher than 18 points. And, they are now the mentors for freshman and sophomore runners, John Christensen, Sean Pettis, Gary Springstead and Henrick Quist as they look to join the Shuler brothers and Somers in continuing the excellence of the program over the next few years.
They go into the state meet as heavy favorites to win the Division 2 state championship, but even though they are a close-knit group and have fun together, they are not cocky and take nothing for granted. They know they have worked hard and have earned the right to compete, but they also know that this is the state finals, there are no weak teams here and nothing will be handed to them at this race. As they say, “that is why they play the game” or in this case, run the race.
The boys run Friday November 6 at 2:00 p.m. and the girls on the same day at 3:00 p.m.