By BRETT MARSHALL
Alex Miller and Kayla Doll remember the informal sitdown talk with Garden City High School cross country coach just prior to the start of the 2010 season, when those two and fellow freshman Chelsea Jackson were just about to embark on their prep career.
Little did any of the three realize at the time, but it was Linenberger who saw something special in the three and wanted to explore the unknown territory of what lay ahead for the three over the next four years.
On Wednesday, in the GCHS auditorium, the now three seniors saw all the hard work, dedication and improvement come to fruition as they signed respective letters-of-intent to continue their cross country, and track, careers — Doll and Miller signing NCAA Division I letters at Kansas State University while Jackson put her signature on a letter to attend NCAA Division II Fort Hays State University.
The signing for Miller and Doll is believed to be a first for the GCHS girls cross country program to run at a D-I program.
"I think we both remember that she (coach Linenberger) told us that she thought we had the potential to do great things," Miller said in recalling that early September meeting just near the track at Memorial Stadium.
"She told us she thought we were a special group and that if we worked hard and were willing to put in the effort, a lot of good things would happen," Doll said.
And certainly those goals became reality during the next four years, with numerous highights along the way.
Miller was the Class 6A individual state runner-up in both the 2012 and 2013 state cross country meet in leading the Lady Buffs to runner-up team finishes each of those two years. Doll was a medalist her senior season at the state meet, finishing 12th. Jackson placed 28th in each of her final two seasons, but was the lone four-year state qualifier, the only girl to reach state during that freshman season that seems oh so long ago.
"It will definitely be different without them running by my side," Jackson said of Miller and Doll heading to K-State. "We've pushed each other, and I think we'd all agree that we wouldn't be here without the others, without our team. We've developed that bond, and I think that's what has made this possible."
On that early September (2nd) day, in the first cross country meet of the season, Linenberger had the trio run as part of the junior varsity, keeping in line with her policy of not running a freshman on the varsity at the first meet of the year. All the three did was run the fastest times amongst both varsity and JV girls for the Lady Buffs that day.
"We knew they were three pretty solid runners in the freshman group," Linenberger said following that 2010 meet in a telephone interview with The Telegram. "We just didn't know what to really expect, but they did a nice job. We'll sit down over the weekend and evaluate what we do with the varsity, who will run next week."
From that point forward, the three were in uniform for the Lady Buffs' varsity team.
What perhaps is ironic in this journey for the three, is that it was Jackson who was the top finisher in most of their freshman races, and eventually the lone qualifier to run at the state meet in 2010. Miller and Doll were just trying to figure things out in a sport that wasn't originally at the top of their list.
"I always dreamed of playing basketball at Kansas State, so if this is something I thought of, I'd tell you no," Miller said of her choice of sports. "We were oblivious to what was needed in cross country. We didn't run the summer before our freshman year. We really didn't know much about it. It was just something we decided to do."
Doll, on the other hand, originally planned to play volleyball at GCHS. But then she also changed her mind.
"That first year, we just ran and didn't think too much about what we were doing," Doll said. "We had no idea about training, how much to run, how to train, anything. We just went and run and tried to have fun."
During their sophomore season, the Lady Buffs kicked their performance into a higher gear, winning the Western Athletic Conference, finishing second in the 6A regional and went on to earn a seventh-place team finish at the state meet. In the regionals that year, Miller, Jackson and Doll ran second, third and sixth. At the state meet, Jackson was 11th and Miller 14th, earning both of them a medal.
"I thought my sophomore year was really my down year," Doll said. "I dreaded it and I was miserable at times. But I learned that you just have to conquer that, and when I did that, I got better."
Miller said it was that same season in which she realized that she and the others could improve even more.
"We wanted to do great things and coach (assistant Derek) Algrim gave us some optional programs to run in the summer months," Miller said. "That really helped us get better."
During their final cross country campaign, Miller finished first in six of her nine races, Doll had five runner-up finishes and a third while Jackson six top-10 finishes, her best a second to Miller at the WAC championship. The team claimed five meet titles, compiling an impressive 168-13 won-loss record against its competition. They were part of the winningest girls team in program history.
And while the majority of the honors have come in cross country, the three also excel in the spring track season. Miller and Doll were members of the Class 6A state gold-medal winning 4x800-meter relay team last May, finishing off an unbeaten season and setting a school record in the process. Jackson will run both the 1,600- and 3,200-meters once again. Miller will likely run those same two events, while Doll, who usually has run the 800 and then on a couple of relay teams, is penciled in for some 1,600's this year, too.
Their spring season is a couple of months away, but the three are preparing hard for the final prep season.
"It's something that definitely has been worth it," Miller said.
A couple of weeks ago, Miller and Doll traveled to Manhattan where they watched a Wildcat workout.
"We know what to expect, and we know we've got a long way to go," Doll said after watching KSU coach Michael Smith put his team through a daily practice. "He's given us a plan for the coming summer, with goals, so we'll be ready."
Jackson said she was looking forward to joining former GCHS teammate Jacob Thomas at Fort Hays State and also noted that another GCHS runner, Jonny Bernasky, was running at FHSU. Former GCHS runner Jordan Ortega is a senior on the Lady Tigers' team this year.
"I looked at a number of schools, and this just seemd to be the right fit," Jackson said.
It's a future filled with hope, just as it was in 2010.