Some young athletes have to be prodded along, encouraged to put forth the effort to compete and outwork the competition.
And then there’s Jones County sophomore cross country runner Erin Leonard.
Despite an ankle injury suffered just weeks before the start of the 2016 season, which sidelined her for about six weeks, she took the challenge against the competition and her recovery head on. It all culminated in her repeating as a region champion before going on to to win the GHSA Class 5A title.
Leonard, The Telegraph’s All-Middle Georgia Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, posted one of the top 10 quickest overall times of girls runners in all classifications at the state meet.
“That’s the hardest thing with her, to make her stop, make her rest. I have to tell her to take a day off or take it easy, and she won’t do it. Even when she was injured, I asked her to take it easy. After (the region meet), I asked her to get some rest,” Jones County head coach Michael Denaro said. “She loves it that much and wants to push herself. It’s scary because I know she needs the rest, but she does not see it that way. In the end, it makes her better.”
For a cross country runner, few injuries are tougher to confront than an ankle injury. With the sometimes uneven terrain of cross country courses and all of the strain put on lower body muscles during the course of events within the sport, an ankle is among the most important parts of a runner’s body.
She loves it that much and wants to push herself. It’s scary because I know she needs the rest, but she does not see it that way. In the end, it makes her better.
Jones County head coach Michael Denaro on Erin Leonard
Throw in Leonard’s injury being a handful of weeks before the season began, and the timing could not have been much worse.
“I did not every think I’d come back that quick. It was really hard, because all of the training I had done in the summer, it was just gone and lost,” Leonard said. “Running is pretty much who I am, so that was hard.”
But Leonard took on the challenge of recovering quicker than expected, even though she was forced to wear a cast for two weeks. While most runners would not be back to full strength by the end of a season, Leonard worked her way back little by little.
As the season went on, she moved closer and closer to a full recovery while also being motivated by what her competition was doing, giving her a barometer to shoot for when she returned to full strength.
“I would always look at MileSplit and see where everyone was in my region and classification,” Leonard said. “It pushed me harder, and I knew what I needed to do to.”
By the time the region meet rolled around, she repeated as champion with a time of 18:22. That performance was followed up with a time of 19:17 in the state meet on Nov. 4 in Carrollton as she coasted to the win.
“I was anticipating her to be out until the end of September, and it was the middle of September when she came back. She struggled at first; I was thinking, ‘She’s not going to rebound; it’ll be tough this year.’ But her determination just to push herself, she pushed herself just enough to get back to where she needed to be,” Denaro said. “After the first couple of races, you knew she’d be able to do something different (than expected).”
Girls Cross Country
Erin Leonard, Jones County, Soph.
Returning first-teamer; GHSA Class 5A champion (19:17.97), winning by 45 seconds; Foot Locker state team selection; has No. 9 time (18:07.82) time in state.
Karmen LeRoy, Trinity Christian, Soph.
Finished second in GISA Class 3A (19:39.05) with second-best time of area runners this season; Region 2-3A champ (20:10); sub-22:00 marks in major meets.
Alyssa Mountin, Perry, Soph.
Returning first-teamer; GHSA Region 2-4A champ (20:23) was 29th in Class 4A meet (20:50); all sub-22:00 marks.
Janie Samson, Trinity Christian, Fr.
Returning first-teamer; 10th in GISA Class 3A meet (20:31), Region 2-AAA runner-up (20:21); all times under 22:00.
Jordan Rozier, Howard, Soph.
Finished 40th in GHSA Class 4A meet (21:59.34); all times sub-22:00; best of 19:50.67 is 153rd in state.
Kenzie Walls, Veterans, Fr.
Finished 12th (20:59.16) in GHSA Class 5A meet; Region 1-5A champ (20:51.0); Houston County champ (20:12.03); all sub-22:00 times.
Note: Team is compiled from nominations from schools in conjunction with information from ga.milesplit.com