No. 4: Miller leads youthful GCHS girls XC to 2nd at 6A state
Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 sports stories of 2010 as chosen by The Telegram staff.
By BRETT MARSHALL
They were nicknamed the Fab Five when they broke onto the high school cross country scene in 2010.
Chelsea Jackson, Alex Miller, Kayla Doll, Jessica Bernasky, Neysa Harman and Maria Rodriguez. That season, with a modicum of success, Jackson was the lone Garden City High School runner to qualify for the Class 6A state meet at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence.
Fast forward to 2011 and they were the Sophomore Sensations, mixed in with another newcomer, freshman Katy Doll. With Jackson earning a top 30 finish, the Lady Buffs claimed a seventh place team finish at that year's state meet.
With 2012 arriving, expectations were admittedly high and the Lady Buffs didn't disappoint. As the season progressed, and the team rolled up title after title, including its second straight Western Athletic Conference title and a regional championship, the state meet took on a different feel for the Lady Buffs and coach Krista Linenberger.
During the regular season, the Lady Buffs won five team championships in the nine meets in which they competed. They won the 6A regional in Wichita after defending their Western Athletic Conference crown a week earlier. They finished first at Great Bend, Hays and at Canon City, Colo., where they ran at the Royal Gorge.
Miller became the team's front runner, taking top honors for the Lady Buffs in every single race while Kayla Doll and Jackson switched off as the Nos. 2 and 3 runners all season.
It was a memorable season for both team and individuals — Miller finishing no lower than fourth individually in any of the nine meets in which the team ran.
"A lot of her improvement came from her commitment to the summer running," Linenberger said. "She and the others did more training, did more work in the weight room. It all paid off for them."
Senior Savannah Peters had cracked the top seven list, supplanting Bernasky on the varsity squad.
And when it came time for the Class 6A state meet once again at Rim Rock, the Lady Buffs were primed for the run of their life.
With Miller again leading the way with a second-place individual finish, tying the best all-time finish for a GCHS runner, the Lady Buffs brought home the state runner-up team trophy, the highest finish in program history.
"They all came up big time," Linenberger said that Saturday in late October. "They were all very good with what their role was, and they fulfilled it."
Miller was the lone top 20 medal winner for the Lady Buffs, but Kayla Doll was close, capturing 21st while Jackson was 28th, Katy Doll in 31st and Rodriguez 44th. The year before, Rodriguez had placed 81st. Harman and Peters had non-counting team score finishes of 71st and 93rd.
While Miller finished more than a minute behind champion Alli Cash of Shawnee Mission West, there was no apology as Cash is an All-American runner in both cross country and track and had established a Rim Rock meet record earlier in the season at the Rim Rock Classic. She is a multiple state champion in the distance races at the state track meet.
"Alex will have a wonderful memory of what she did, especially when you look at who she was competing with," Linenberger said. "Cash has a great chance of becoming a future Olympian."
For Miller, the individual runner-up finish took a back seat to what she and her teammates had accomplished.
"This is overwhelming," Miller said. "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."
Linenberger, who has been in the program for more than a decade, couldn't say enough about her team's effort.
"I thought they had it in them to do it, and a coach couldn't ask for anything more," Linenberger said. "It's just great to see them be able to celebrate what they've worked so hard for."
Three times during the regular season, Miller, Kayla Doll and Jackson ran 1-2-3 individually to pace the team. Six times, Kayla Doll and Jackson joined Miller in the top five finishers. At the difficult Rim Rock Classic in September, the team finished 13th of 26 against teams from six states, but only lost to one Kansas team.
One of the keys to the runner-up finish at state was the improved placing of Katy Doll and Rodriguez. Those two closed the gap on the Lady Buffs' top three runners, thus putting the team in position for its best finish in school history.
Only one other GCHS girl — Janet Doll in 1981 — had finished second. She is an aunt to Kayla and Katy.
And while the Lady Buffs could bask in their accomplishment, both as a team and individually, it sets the table for what is sure to be a promising senior season for the group that just not long ago was a group of freshmen trying to find their way onto the high school cross country scene.
They had arrived. It remains to be seen what they will do for an encore as seniors in 2013. Super Seniors?