By BRETT MARSHALL
The journey to the Kansas Class 6A state cross country meet began inauspiciously in October of 2010, when a pixieish Chelsea Jackson was the lone qualifier for the Garden City Lady Buffs.
On her first run at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, considered one of the toughest cross country courses in the United States, Jackson lost a shoe when a competitor stepped on her right heel and finished an inconspicuous 33rd.
Left behind at home were fellow freshmen Alex Miller, Neysa Harman, Kayla Doll and Jessica Bernasky, all who came up short in qualifying for the state meet.
On Saturday, the majority of that group — Jackson, Miller, Doll and newer senior addition Maria Rodriguez — will lead the Lady Buffs to a goal that became doable a year ago when nearly the same group captured the runner-up trophy at the 6A state meet at Rim Rock.
It's a noon start for the Lady Buffs and the temperature is expected to be in the mid-50s when the starter's pistol is fired with just over 100 runners battling for the top team and individual honors.
Defending champion Shawnee Mission West is in the field along with other regional champions Lawrence-Free State and Olathe East. Those will be the three teams that stand in the way of the Lady Buffs' quest for the school's first team championship in school history.
Ninety minutes earlier at 10:30 a.m., it will be the surprising GCHS boys, who stunned the Wichita regional a week ago by capturing the team title, and also will compete for team and individual trophies and medals.
For the Lady Buffs, though, it's the final unfulfilled journey that has seen the group grow, change, mature and get stronger with each and every season — through cross country and spring track and field. And now that they've arrived at the end of their Yellow Brick Road, they want that final prize.
"I think that we've been through a lot in our four years," said senior Kayla Doll, whose younger sister, Katy, also plays a pivotal role in the team's success. "We've made a lot of memories. We've had our ups and downs, but we've rounded it all up, and now we're going for the state championship. That's our goal, it's a doable goal for us. It's not going to be easy, and we're gonna have to fight. It's a journey, and we're coming to the end of our journey, and we want to end it well."
For Rodriguez, a quiet and unassuming member of the group who joined the team her sophomore year, the magnitude of what the team is chasing became clear at the 2012 state meet.
"At the beginning when I started running, I didn't think it was that important," Rodriguez, a standout soccer player in the spring, said. "But then I came to realize, especially after Alex would tell us that every runner is vital, it just makes me want to do better. I know I will be important in the race. Each one of us is. That's the mentality we have now. We've worked for what we've got and we know we have a good chance."
It is Jackson, perhaps, who personifies the team's attitude as it makes its final run to the top.
The No. 1 runner for the first two years, she has finished second or third on the team in each and every event this season. But she sees the state meet in a way that emphasizes the team concept that has become the group's trademark.
"All of us came out strong this year," Jackson said. "We worked hard over the summer. We came into it knowing it was our last season. We've kept that in mind. Our final meets, we just want to wrap up what we've done all four years. We want to end up on the highest note of our career. I think what we accomplished last year, and once we finally realized our potential, we've worked harder and know we can do bigger things than the year before."
It has been Miller's steady run at the top of the Lady Buffs' effort that has provided that added spark to the team's success. She has led the squad in each race this season, but also says that she's just one of the group, with each having their own leadership qualities.
"The journey has definitely been a ride," Miller said. "It's a special part of my life. These girls, I love these girls, the coaches, the boys. The experience has been a joy and I'm just thankful for everything."
In last year's state meet, Miller was in 30th place at the halfway point and made her way through the runners in front, with All-American Alli Cash (now at Oregon) the lone runner to finish ahead. Miller finished 0.6 of a second in front of Manhattan's Alaina Schroeder for the runner-up spot.
"I remember seeing some runners that we all know and recognize," Miller recalled of that race. "So I just ran, and I ran, it's as simple as that. I thought about the team and to go after it."
Absent at this year's meet is Harman, who would have likely been on the squad, but has battled an illness all season. Savannah Peters was the lone senior on the 2012 squad.
Kayla's younger sister, Katy, has been described as the "link" and the "riser" by her elder teammates.
"She's been the fourth runner and she's the connection in the chain between the top three and our fifth, sixth and seventh runners," explained Kayla. "You can't have that chain broken. I have never seen a person who can rise to the occasion like Katy can. Katy is dependable and we're not worried about Katy at all."
The final two spots on the team are freshmen Hannah Schultz and Aileen Gurrola.
"It's good for them, because they can see they are part of laying the foundation for the program," Jackson and Doll said together. "They have many years to lead the team and it's gonna be their (team) soon."
Senior Ashley Smith is the alternate for the team, available in case of illness or injury. She, too, shares the vision of what is possible on Saturday.
"Being on this team has helped me a lot, and while I'm not on the varsity all the time, I know I've helped to push the other girls to be better," Smith said. "You know your role and you push them at practice. I try to stay calm and relaxed and help them however I can. There's only seven who can run, but I know that everybody on the team has contributed in some way to the success."
Perhaps as surprising as anything has been the meteoric rise of the Buffs' boys team during the current season.
With no returning varsity experience, head coach Krista Linenberger had no idea who would comprise the varsity seven, or how the team would perform.
Well, surprise, surprise.
Exceeding all expectations, the Buffs, behind freshmen Marcus Tula and Erik Chaparro, have emerged as the up-and-coming group. They matched the regional title of the Lady Buffs in a continued show of improvement throughout the season. Perhaps an early indicator was two weeks ago when they placed second in the Western Athletic Conference meet in Great Bend.
For the pair of freshmen headliners, it has been a dream season to date, with more dreams yet to be realized.
At the Wichita East regional on Saturday, Chaparro and Tula ran second and third with marks of 16:40 and 16:49 for the 5-kilometer race.
"At the beginning of the season, I kinda expected to make varsity, but I thought I'd be low on the team," Chaparro said. "I didn't imagine this at all, and I didn't think I'd make state my freshman year, and especially didn't think our team would make state. But it's a pretty good feeling."
Tula echoed his classmate/teammate's sentiments about how the season has unfolded.
"All of us are pushing each other every day," Tula said. "The senior girls have been a lot of support to us. They've told us how to run, what to expect. I look up to them. Me and Erik want to build this team like they (girls) have. We want to make a name for ourselves, like for Garden City. They've made a big impact on our team."
The girls, too, see the success of the boys as a positive for them.
"We were more excited for them because it hadn't been expected," said Kayla Doll. "We're thrilled to have them practicing this week and for them to be able to go to state as a team, too, is really exciting for all of us. We want to go there and prove to the east schools, that Garden City can run cross country, too."