By BRETT MARSHALL
When Chelsea Jackson, Alex Miller and Kayla Doll competed in their first high school cross country meet as freshmen in Sept. of 2010, they were all running for the Lady Buffs' junior varsity squad at Great Bend.
The eye-opening performance that came with their inaugural run at the high school level was the mere fact that they ran the three fastest times of the day, beating all seven varsity runners.
That was the last JV meet in which the three runners competed. From that time forward, those three, who were eventually joined by classmates Neysa Harman and Maria Rodriguez, and then a year later by Katy Doll, have enjoyed their run for glory.
It was only 10 months ago that this group of determined, talented runners capped off the 2012 cross country season with a runner-up finish at the Class 6A state meet at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence.
With Miller paving the way with an individual second-place finish, the Lady Buffs scored 100 points to finish behind state champion Olathe East's 89.
For veteran head coach Krista Linenberger, it seems hard to believe that this group of girls are now seniors, preparing for one last run at a state title.
"Oh yes, wow, have they gotten better," said a smiling Linenberger when asked about the progression through the three years of competition for the group. "They're all pretty humble and they work hard to do what they do. They know things are not going to be handed to them."
Of the seven girls who ran at Rim Rock last fall, the top six return — Miller, Kayla Doll, Jackson, Katy Doll, Rodriguez and Harman. Only Savannah Peters graduated.
"This group is more motivated than any group I've ever coached," said Linenberger, "They did their summer running and watched the diets they consume. They will do anything they can to get an edge."
Miller, who won a photo-finish for second against Manhattan's Alaina Schroeder (15:10.2 to 15:10.8), said she and her teammates were excited to return for one final year with clear sights set on a state championship.
"It feels really good, a little weird that all of us were just freshmen and now seniors," Miller said. "It's unrealistic how fast it's gone. Honestly, all the thanks for our success goes to our coaches. They've done a lot of preparation for us and setting up the program for success."
Miller said there were multiple reasons for the team's success through the past three seasons.
"We've got this bond and we've struggled together and we've shared the joys together," Miller said. "We're like a family and we support each other. It takes a lot of guts to get out there and run and anyone who does run, they're really doing something. We've got the devotion and we're committed to doing our best."
Miller said that even with the bulk of the squad returning from the 2012 state meet, they weren't taking anything for granted as their senior season approaches.
"We know about the other teams and they're not just going to hand it to us," Miller said. "Everyone else is working hard to beat us. We got a little taste and now we're hungry for more. It's out last chance."
The Lady Buffs reinforced their stature as one of the best distance running groups in Kansas in the spring when Miller, Kayla and Katy Doll and Harman combined to finish the track season unbeaten in the 4x800-meter relay and in the process shattered the school record and won the 6A state meet event by a whopping seven seconds. All ran splits in their 800s in under 2:26.0.
At last year's state cross country meet, the Lady Buffs' scoring runners all placed in the top 45 with Kayla Doll 21st, Jackson 28th, Katy Doll 31st and Rodriguez 44th. Harman and Peters were non-scoring in 71st and 93rd places. The key was the packing time as Rodriguez was 1 minute, 7 seconds behind Miller's time.
"I think we set them up over the summer to recover from all of the running they did last year," Linenberger said. "They really worked hard over the winter and there were times that I thought we might have tired legs in the spring. But everyone's coming in fresh and healthy."
The success of the program in recent years perhaps contributed to the fact that Linenberger and her staff were greeted by 71 runners, split about equally between boys and girls, for this fall's first week of practices, which began on Monday.
The boys' team will certainly be a mystery as the top 10 runners from 2010 all graduated.
"It will be wide open for the spots on the boys team," Linenberger said. "But I think we've got some good freshmen and some of our JV boys from last year are back and have worked hard to improve. It's there for the taking for those who commit to working hard."
Linenberger said it would be a dogfight to see who competes for the final spot on the varsity for the girls this year. Senior Ashley Smith and sophomores Claudia Castro and Kaitlin Smith were right on the heels of Peters a year ago. They return and two freshman newcomers — Hannah Schultz and Aileen Gurrola — also figure to challenge for a varsity spot.
"I don't know if I'll see it again, but these girls are special," Linenberger said of her group. "I've watched them grow. They've not had a lot of setbacks, but they've worked so very hard to accomplish everything."
The Buffs will have their first meet on Sept. 5 at Great Bend. Their schedule this fall also includes a return trip to the Rim Rock Invitational (Sept. 28) and an invitation to the prestigious Chili Pepper Cross Country Festival in Fayetteville, Ark., on Oct. 5. There will be more than 4,500 and 120 teams competing at various levels in the one-day extravaganza.
"We got an invitation and we really wanted to have a special event for the kids this season," said Linenberger. "We're not taking the varsity kids back to the Royal Gorge this year, so this is the extra event we decided on."