By BRETT MARSHALL
Two years ago, a group of five freshmen made the big splash onto the cross country and track and field scene at Garden City High School.
The Fab Five as they were fondly nicknamed — Chelsea Jackson, Alex Miller, Kayla Doll, Maria Rodriguez and Neysa Harman — didn't qualify as a team for the Class 6A state cross country meet, as only Jackson managed to secure a spot to run at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence.
A year later, that same group, adding in another freshman in Katy Doll, Kayla's younger sister, qualified and placed seventh in the team standings. Jackson and Miller were the top individual finishers, taking 11th and 14th, respectively.
Fast forward to 2012 and that same group of five, now juniors, along with the younger Doll and senior Savannah Peters, are on the brink of making an even bigger impact at the state meet, scheduled for a 12:30 p.m. run Saturday at the same Rim Rock Farm course.
"I think we can run with the best of the teams there," Krista Linenberger, GCHS cross country coach, said earlier this week. "When we ran at KU (Sept. 22, Rim Rock Classic), we finished behind Shawnee Mission West and they were the only 6A team ahead of us."
All season, the Lady Buffs have performed at a high level, repeating as Western Athletic Conference champions and then claiming the Wichita East regional on Saturday at the Cessna Activity Center.
It has been, for the most part, Miller, Kayla Doll and Jackson going 1-2-3 for the team.
"It's really not a question of how our 1-2-3 runners do, because they've run consistently well all season," Linenberger said. "It's how our 4-5-6 runners perform. They've got to step it up and finish higher if we want to have a chance to finish high."
Of the 12 teams that qualified at the four regionals, all six teams that finished ahead of the Lady Buffs at the 2011 state meet are back. Shawnee Mission West, with standout Alli Cash leading the way, appears to be the odds-on favorite. From there, it will be among defending team champion Shawnee Mission Northwest, Manhattan, Maize and Olathe East who provide the big obstacles for the Lady Buffs.
"We've keyed in on one another all season and we find strength in one another," Linenberger said. "They have big hearts for one another. Saturday, though, we need to have Katy (usually the fourth finisher for GCHS) to close the gap on our third runner, and then have Maria and Neysa pull along with her. We need to find that next brown (jersey) and close the gap."
Linenberger said she has stressed to the girls that now it is not just good enough to qualify for state. This team has arrived as a legitimate contender for the state title.
"We've blasted through the league and regional competition, and we're certainly happy with that," Linenberger said. "But we're beyond that. I've tried to drive that home with these girls, that they're good enough, and that it's high time to take this on. They've all run at Rim Rock. It's not new to us anymore. We want to do something special. This is the group that can do that. Our expectations have been high all season. Be regional champs and finish in the top three at state. Those are realistic goals."
Linenberger said the Rim Rock Farm layout presents its own set of distinctive challenges, least of which is its variety of severe hills and long, protracted uphill runs.
"We've got to do a better job of getting out at the start," Linenberger said. "We've struggled with that at Rim Rock, so we're going to really discuss it when we do our walk-through on the course Friday."
Linenberger said it was not so much expending all the energy at the outset of the race, but not to fall too far behind as the race moves into the middle part of the course.
"That's the key part of the race and you want to attack the hill, and then maintain through the hill, and then go," Linenberger said. "Then you just have to drive completely uphill to get to the finish line. It's a test of every ounce of strong a kid is. Our kids have worked so hard, I'm a firm believer they will be strong at the finish."
And while the focus has been on the girls team, the Buffs did qualify two senior boys for Saturday's run — Jacob Thomas and Jalen Rowland. Rowland was a qualifier for the 2011 state meet.
"It's great to get two of them in, we certainly had hoped we might slip the boys team in with a third at regional," Linenberger said. "But it's good for these two. They've put in a lot of time, a lot of miles, and it's nice to see them get this reward."
The boys run at 11:30 a.m., while the girls will conclude the day's races for Classes 3A-5A-6A at 12:30 p.m.