Four years ago, three low-key incoming freshmen in Keller’s cross country program began to build a legacy not yet completed.
The girls program finished fifth at the regional meet and the season came to an end that year.
But Julia Black, Abbey Santoro and Sydney White had found a sport they were passionate about and set their sights on being as good as the runners they competed against each Saturday.
They would help lead Keller to a state title last year and become the odds-on-favorite to repeat this year.
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After that freshman year, they finished third in the state as sophomores.
We’re not going out there to take it easy and not try. We’re Keller ... and want to defend our state title.
They admit they had a lot to learn about the 5K strategy of running a cross country race, but they had a hint they might be pretty good.
In their sophomore year at the Marcus I meet — one of the most competitive races in the area — the girls looked around them and realized something special.
“We were talking and told each other we had just beaten a lot of good girls,” Black said.
“I think we are the good girls,” Black said to Santoro. “We just beat so-and-so. Are people saying that about us?”
The realization hit and their confidence grew as they clocked times with DI-bound runners.
The three girls had willingly painted targets on their backs for their senior campaign.
Santoro admits there’s pressure to repeat as state champions this year, but said that pressure is helping keep a fine edge to their focus.
“We’re not going out there to take it easy and not try,” Santoro said. “We’re Keller and we have the same goals as last year and want to defend our state title.”
The trio have helped set the standards for the new generation of Keller runners to help them achieve their goals.
They’ve been joined with runners such as Isabel Van Camp, Vera Thompson, Makenna Pallozi and Emily Watson.
Keller head coach Brian Zaring credits the three seniors with setting that bar higher each year.
“They have leadership that has grown the program and have set an expectation for times to come,” Zaring said. “They have shown the younger girls what running and competing is all about.”
These giants of the state’s top program don’t necessarily cast large shadows, though.
The girls that are looked up to all across the state were lucky to stand taller than their homecoming mums.
Santoro stands 5-3, Black is 5-4 and White towers over most at 5-7.
While they haven’t added many inches over the last four years, they’ve certainly shortened their times.
Black said she’s cut about 1:40 off her 5K time since her freshman year. But all the runners are doing turning in faster times, she said.
What won the Marcus meet in their freshman year would only have given them ninth place this year.
And they’ll need to maintain those new personal-best times as the district meet is just three weeks away.
The workouts have been more intense over time as the girls have improved. The bar keeps moving with their improvements.
“We think we’re ready, physically and mentally,” White said. “That means the season is nearing the end and I don’t want the season to end. We’re ready to race, yes. Ready for the season to end, no.”
Zaring has a countdown calendar near his office so the girls know that as of Friday, there’s just 43 days until state.
“It’s not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things,” Santoro said. “The thing about cross country is that you get out of it what you put into it. The team wants to see results and achieve our goals we set for ourselves. But we don’t set limits on ourselves, too.”