Only a sophomore, Ashley Johnson of Martin has already established herself as one of the state’s top runners.On Saturday, Johnson placed 23rd at the 5A state cross country meet with a time of 19 minutes, 6.79 seconds. Johnson, who is also a track standout, made big strides between her freshman year and this season. The fleet-footed Johnson plans on getting even faster before her junior year rolls around.“It shows me that I have a lot of talent,” Johnson said. “If I practice and push myself hard, I could be a lot better [as a junior and senior]. I could win state.”Johnson put her talent on display to reach state. She won the District 3-5A meet in October and set a personal record in the process. She beat her personal record at regionals in Lubbock the following week by running a time of 18 minutes, 10 seconds. And that personal-best time, which came despite the steep climbs for which the course is notorious, was good for eighth in Region I. The top 10 runners advance to state.“I just ran what was comfortable, but I still pushed myself,” Johnson said of her performance at regionals.Cross country assistant coach Ruth Knight, the varsity girls soccer coach, informed Johnson during the regional race that she was in the top 10. “I made it my goal in the last mile not to let anyone pass me,” Johnson said.She prepared for regionals by preparing for the brutal opening hill climb. Johnson was able to stay toward the front of the pack on the steep incline in part because the ascent wasn’t nearly as harsh as what she had built it up to be in her mind.“I kind of over-exaggerated the hill this year, so when I ran it, it wasn’t that bad,” she said. Her expectations headed into regionals were to place in the Top 20 and set a personal-best time. But just as she has done all season, Johnson exceeded her own high expectations. She won the first meet of the season in Burleson and realized she and her Martin girls teammates had a chance to make it to regionals as a team.As a freshman in 2012, she began the season on junior varsity and ran a time of 26 minutes her first time out. By the middle of the season, she had earned a spot of varsity and even got to run at regionals after the Martin girls qualified as a team with a third-place showing at the 3-5A meet.This time around, the Martin girls finished second at district and Johnson led the way. Julie Gage, the Martin girls cross country coach, said Johnson led by example and pushed everyone on the team to get better.Despite her small, slender frame, Johnson is a fierce competitor who hates to lose, Gage said. “She’s fun to be around – everybody gets excited when she gets out there. She’s so competitive in every meet and in practices. It’s definitely helped the program. It’s helped the varsity girls. Everyone has dropped their times this year. Ashley’s been a great leader, a great person to pull them along the whole season.” Johnson said her sophomore season is proof that her summer workouts paid off. Gage recalls Johnson showing up early on summer mornings to do strength and conditioning workouts alongside other top Martin athletes, including the football players. Then in the evenings, it was long endurance runs. “Ashley, as little as she is, out there with football players all summer,” Gage said. “It’s great for the younger kids to watch her and see how she does it.”Johnson will be setting the pace at Martin for several years to come, and that excites her coach. “It’s great to have Ashley for two more years to build the program around,” Gage said.