By BRETT MARSHALL
LAWRENCE — Ever since five freshmen stepped to the starting line in the fall of 2010, the Garden City High School girls cross country team has been on a meteoric rise.
That three-year process of watching the Fab Five, joined by one junior and senior, came full circle on Saturday at Rim Rock Farm when the Lady Buffaloes claimed the Class 6A runner-up trophy by compiling 100 points, not far back of champion Olathe East (89) and just ahead of defending champion Shawnee Mission West (110).
And that's not all.
One of those juniors — Alex Miller — duplicated a feat accomplished by only one other GCHS girls' runner (Janet Doll, 1981) in school history by taking the silver medal, runner-up to All-American Alli Cash of Shawnee Mission West.
Miller came from the 30th position midway through the race and overtook 28 runners over the final 1.2 miles and clipped 2011 runner-up Alaina Schroeder of Manhattan in a near photo-finish to take second with a time of 15:10.2 to Schroeder's 15:10.8.
"This is overwhelming," Miller said afterward. "We've worked so hard from the beginning of the summer, pushing each other. I'm proud of all of us. We've put a lot of heart into it. You just want to go out and compete because you know your teammates are pushing just as hard as you."
It is the first team trophy in school history for the girls cross country program, and sets the stage for what will obviously be a promising and exciting 2013 season.
The key that coach Krista Linenberger had predicted early in the week prior certainly proved to be prophetic, as Miller was the lone top-20 individual finisher for the Lady Buffs. Kayla Doll was 21st (15:47.8), Chelsea Jackson was 28th (16:03.2), and most importantly, Katy Doll was close behind in 31st (16:05.8) and Maria Rodriguez was 44th with a time of 16:17.40.
"They all came up big time," Linenberger said. "If our 4-5 (Katy Doll, Rodriguez) hadn't run that way, we could have finished all the way to sixth. It was just that close for second (100) to sixth (128). I thought they had it in them to do it, and a coach couldn't ask for any more. They were all very good with what their role was and they fulfilled it. It's just great to see them be able to celebrate what they've worked so hard for."
Non-scoring finishes also included junior Neysa Harman (71st, 16:51.0) and senior Savannah Peters (93rd, 17:21.7). And while their marks didn't figure into the team scoring, there remained no doubt this was a team effort.
"I'm just so flabbergasted," Peters said. "It really topped off my senior year. This team, they're amazing. They made my senior year."
Harman said the team finish was especially gratifying as the predominantly underclassmen group has looked to Peters for leadership as well as each other.
"We all look up to her, she's the oldest," Harman said of Peters. "We call her Mama Savannah. This is just so special for her. She pushes us to do better."
Kayla Doll, in moving from 53rd in 2011, improved her time nearly 48 seconds from last year, when the Lady Buffs were seventh in the team chase.
"I expected our team to do decent, but this is just, well, I didn't expect this," Kayla Doll said. "We did a good job of talking to each other through the race and we were a little farther back early, but we wanted to control it and then pick it up. Alex did a great job right there before the second mile. This hasn't sunk in yet."
Katy Doll was nearly three seconds ahead of her time from a year ago when she was one position back at 32nd. Jackson's time was about 25 seconds behind her 11th place finish time of 2011 while Rodriguez improved her 2011 mark by 50 seconds and Harman lowered her mark by 15 seconds.
It was an emotional, tear-filled, smiling celebration in the immediate aftermath of finding out where the team had finished.
"This is unreal," Jackson said. "We never expected we'd do anything quite like this. It was an intense race and there was a lot more competition as far as the individuals. Everyone has improved a lot. We had huge leaps in our times from a year ago in that 4-5-6 position. The packing we did as a team was the key. It's an amazing feeling, there's nothing like it."
Days before the big race, Linenberger had talked about the vital role of Katy Doll, the lone sophomore on varsity, as she had consistently been the fourth runner for the team all season. The fact she was so close to Jackson (three places, 2.6 seconds) was a testament to how critical she was to the team's success.
"I was happy about being that close to the top three," Katy Doll said. "I could see Chelsea and it felt really good. Maria ran with me the first mile and I know that made our race go even better."
And the icing on the Lady Buffs' celebratory cake came with Rodriguez' improvement from a year ago, going from 81st to 44th.
"It feels awesome, we left it out on the course," Rodriguez said. "We knew we had to pull through. This was our goal, and it just feels great."
Linenberger took great pride in both the team's and Miller's respective runner-up finishes.
"This group is the most unselfish group I've been fortunate to coach," Linenberger said. "What they did today was amazing. And what Alex did coming from 30th to second was even more incredible. Alli Cash is something special and will maybe be an Olympian, but Alex is climbing that ladder, too. Running second to her (Cash) will be a lasting memory."
On the boys side, senior Jacob Thomas ran his best time at Rim Rock (16:45.8) and finished 29th, while fellow senior Jalen Rowland ran a 17:24.6 and was 65th.
"Running here, earlier in the year, prepared me and this ended up being a great day," Thomas said. "Tried to hold back a little bit in the first mile, power through the hills in the second mile, and then the last mile started picking it up and tried to give it all I had the last half mile. It's really exciting."
Results in Scoreboard, Page B2.