For the Keller girls cross country team, success never gets old.
With regular season, district, regional and state championship titles in the trophy case, the Keller girls cross country program always wants to feel the déjà vu.
“When we were running in a meet in 2014, we had beaten some girls who were a couple of years older than us and committed to D1 programs,” senior Julia Black said. “I looked at [teammate Abbey Santoro] and said we just beat some really good girls. I’m shocked every time we do this. Maybe we are some of the good girls.”
Actually, they are. Keller’s girls team travels to Old Settlers Park in Round Rock at 9:50 a.m. Saturday to defend and extend its authority as the top Class 6A program at the state cross country meet.
Keller, the nation’s No. 6 team according to MileSplit’s Flo50 Girls Team Rankings, is considered the favorite to do it, but it will face some stiff competition from Southlake Carroll, Katy Seven Lakes and Humble Kingwood. The best it can do is repeat what it did in 2016.
Standing on top of the podium is the ultimate rush. The pursuit began as the runners stepped off of it after finishing third in 2015. A program that didn’t make it out of regionals in 2014 and didn’t win the 2015 Region I title surprised the state cross country community.
Head coach Brian Zaring and his runners heard the whispers of this being a fluke and that it wouldn’t last. Why? Keller really had no history of cross country success. Keller finished second at the 2016 Region I meet.
“When we got off the podium, I told them that we were going to make it a goal to win the state championship [in 2016],” Zaring said. “The perception started to turn and we earned respect as we were winning meets. At state, we were able to prove that we were good.”
Black and senior teammates Abbey Santoro and Sydney White have cultivated an atmosphere that this program will compete for and win championships. This program has four district titles.
Keller’s reputation now precedes it. During a track meet this spring at Saginaw Boswell, Black and Santoro were making final preparations for the 1600. A fellow competitor walked past and said, “You all have already won this.”
“We knew there was a big target coming into the season,” Santoro said. “Last year set the bar and there’s been a little bit of pressure. We don’t go out there just thinking all we have to do is show up. Coaching Zaring keeps us grounded.”
The 2016 title emboldened this program to surge rather than settle. Workouts remained demanding and stressful. Passion never wavered. The program then became deeper during the summer when Cambria Clark moved in from Smithson Valley. The junior is the No. 4 runner.
Runners went all-in in late June. Most of the girls team traveled to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona to participate in a five-day training camp that would challenge them to run against all kinds of inclines. It’s harder to stay at the top than reach it.
“They went above and beyond what we asked,” Zaring said. “With a situation like 2016, you would expect a bit of a drop-off. It was a new experience. But the NAU trip galvanized our season. But more importantly, the bond with our team strengthened.”
Cross country is a premier team sport. It’s a collection of seven runners pushing themselves and each other to overcome difficult terrain or injuries to get through the course and cross the finish line. Keller set a school record with 28 points when it won its first Region I championship Oct. 23 at Mae Simmons Park in Lubbock.
Achievement leads to growth, as 57 runners are in the girls program. Black remembers there were about 20 when she started. Other successes have followed. Black has committed to run for Texas A&M. Santoro will soon make her commitment decision between Texas A&M, Texas and Wisconsin.
What Black, Santoro and White want to do is leave a legacy that will last as long as other notable programs have. Santoro calls it a movement.
“There are so many amazing programs around here,” Black said. “I want Keller to be one of those amazing teams. I hope one day I can come back and see it and think we were at the start of it.”