Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of 10 stories counting down the top sports stories of 2013 as voted on by The Telegram staff.
By BRETT MARSHALL
In 2012, the Garden City High School Lady Buffaloes cross country team accomplished something for the first time in school history — a team trophy at the Class 6A state championship at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence.
The Lady Buffs, with a then nearly all-underclassmen lineup, captured a second-place trophy, while junior Alex Miller brought home a silver medal for her second-place individual finish. Both were program bests.
So when the 2013 season began back in late August, expectations were high that the Lady Buffs might well have a shot at their first-ever state championship when the big event was to be contested on the first Saturday of November.
The Lady Buffs nearly accomplished that goal, falling just short of a loaded Lawrence Free State team, which was running on its home layout, but the Lady Buffs did repeat its second-place team finish, while Miller, despite running faster than she did a year earlier, also repeated a runner-up finish.
For those accomplishments, and the fact the Buffs' boys team also qualified for the state meet, Garden High cross country's season notched the No. 8 sports story for 2013 as voted on by The Telegram staff.
For their efforts, Miller was recognized as The Telegram's Fall Sports Athlete of the Year, while Linenberger earned Fall Sports Coach of the Year honors.
While the Lady Buffs celebrated joyously in 2012 when they were informed of their second-place finish, this year's news of learning their runner-up standing, there were tears of disappointment.
"I think when you finish second, and then come back the next year, the goal is to win and that was high on the girls' list all year," said veteran coach Krista Linenberger on that November Saturday outside Lawrence. "But when you realize what they accomplished, how well they ran, it's an amazing ending to their high school careers."
Indeed, the Lady Buffs scored 87 points, 13 fewer than they had a year earlier, and that total would have been good enough to win the 2012 team title. But then there was that Free State squad. It was like a tidal wave coming in as the Lady Firebirds had individuals who finished first, second and fifth en route to a mind-nubbing 53 points.
"I think when everyone had a chance to stand back and see how Free State ran, they could get a better objective view of just how well the girls did run," Linenberger said of her senior-dominated team.
In addition to the runner-up finish by Miller, senior Kayla Doll improved her finish to 12th and her younger sister, Katy, cracked the top 20 with a 19th-place finish, thus giving the Lady Buffs three medalists.
"I think we went out a lot stronger, and didn't sit back like we did last year," Miller said after the state race. "I thought we kept picking it up more, and we gave it all we could, and then some."
The 12th-place individual finish by Kayla Doll was her first time to claim an individual medal at the state meet, moving up from 21st in 2012.
"I don't think there were any real big surprises," she said afterward. "We knew what to expect. We knew they'd take off pretty fast, and we kind of had to run smart. There was a lot of adrenaline in that first mile. I think we did a decent job with that."
The younger Doll sister echoed Kayla's sentiments, and was able to put the day in perspective.
"The outcome didn't come out like we'd hoped," Katy said. "But look at last year vs. this year, we had three in the top 20, while we had only one last year. It's a step up for our team, and will be good for these girls who will be back."
Linenberger said she knew Free State would be a big challenge, especially after the Lady Buffs had watched the Firebirds finish well ahead of them in the Rim Rock Farm Classic at the end of September on the same course.
"Our girls ran great, and it would have taken some really awesome stuff from our fifth," Linenberger said."Free State is just tough right now, and put them on their home course, it made it nearly impossible. I'm certainly not ashamed of second place. We've brought home more hardware than at any time in the school's history. That shows you right there that they ran great. I know they had their heart set on first, but I don't know what they could have done different."
It brought the curtain down on the most successful four-year period of the Lady Buffs' cross country program. From not having a team qualify their freshman season (only Chelsea Jackson did that), the Lady Buffs captured seventh as sophomores, and then moved up to their back-to-back second-place finishes.
For the Buffs' boys, it was a breakthrough season, and with mostly underclassmen leading the way.
Freshman Erik Chaparro brought home an individual medal with his 19th-place finish, while the boys team placed ninth among the 12 competing teams.
"I think the future really looks good for both the boys and girls," Linenberger said. "We just need to get the kids returning to get the other kids out running more in the summer. This group has the biggest heart of anybody I know. When you have leaders like that, you can't go wrong."