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Harding, Rockford race to Division 1 titles

By: Bill Khan, November 7, 2015, 11:53 pm

Brooklyn — Every runner that comes through the Rockford boys’ cross country program understands that legacy that has been established.

In case they need a reminder, the person most responsible for creating that legacy is back in the area and willing to help out in any way he can.

Three-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein is looked up to by runners throughout the United States. He has a special appeal in Rockford, where he joined forces with future pro runner Jason Hartmann to create one of the greatest programs in Michigan.

As it is for any runner growing up in Rockford, Hartmann and Ritzenhein are heroes for senior Isaac Harding, who can now be mentioned in the same breath with the former Rams greats.

Harding won the state Division 1 individual championship with a time of 15:10.4, leading Rockford to its second straight team championship on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.

Harding joins Hartmann (1997 and 1998) and Ritzenhein (1999 and 2000) as Rockford’s only individual champions. He also outdid the Rockford legends by leading the Rams to back-to-back titles for the first time in school history. Rockford’s other two championships came in 2000, when Ritzenhein had his iconic 14:10.4 performance, and in 2002. Rockford took second three years in a row during the heydey of Hartmann and Ritzenhein.

"It’s kind of nice to sort of race through his footsteps a little bit," Harding said of Ritzenhein. "He supports the Rams. He talked to our team a little bit earlier this week. He reminds us to stay composed for the end of the season, supporting us and stuff like that."

Harding is the only member of the current Rockford team to run in the finals for four years. He has improved every year in place and time, going from 70th (16:14.6) to 31st (16:06.8) to fourth (15:23.2) to champion.

"It’s been kind of a really long road," Harding said. "Since my freshman year, I’ve been looking at results, trying to think if I can beat most of the people in my grade. Toward the end of my freshman year, I started thinking I could just try to work my way up the ladder and get to the top so my senior year I came come through first."

Harding led only briefly on a windy afternoon at MIS, preferring instead to tuck in behind other runners to conserve energy. With nobody wanting to take a solo run into the teeth of the wind, there were still four runners together with a quarter mile to go. The group then went down to two, with Harding outkicking Alpena junior Mitchell Day to take the title.

"I definitely didn’t want to take the lead until I needed to, just to avoid the wind," Harding said. "I kind of let other guys do the work for most of the race before taking the lead."

As a team, Rockford squeaked out a 99-101 victory over Northville.

"Winning the state meet last year was really exciting," Harding said. "We came back this year with four of our top five back. We had our fifth guy step up."

Harding, sophomore Cole Johnson, senior Grant Gabriel and senior Grayson Harding scored for Rockford each of the last two years. Johnson was third in 15:15.0, Gabriel 34th in 16:00.3 and Harding 39th in 16:04.4. Rounding out the scoring was senior Matthew MacGregor, who ran 16:24.9.