Notre Dame's Kiblinger returns to state cross country meet

Friday, November 4, 2011
Notre Dame senior Elizabeth Kiblinger will be competing at the Class 3 state cross country meet for the third consecutive year Saturday in Jefferson City, Mo. (Laura Simon)

Notre Dame senior Elizabeth Kiblinger can do some things exceedingly well.

She's a whiz in the classroom and doesn't dodge the tough ones, taking the likes of calculus, advanced chemistry, college composition and Spanish 4.

In fact, she's on track to become the valedictorian of her class this spring.

Or as Notre Dame cross country coach Bill Davis asserts, "She will be the valedictorian."

Kiblinger also is one of Davis' prize pupils when it comes to running. She collected all-state honors as a junior at the Class 3 cross country meet, and will return to face the state's best at Oak Hills Golf Center in Jefferson City, Mo., with two of her teammates this weekend.

Elizabeth Kiblinger earned all-state honors last season when she finished 17th at the Class 3 cross country meet.

If you find something in which Kiblinger doesn't excel, she'll likely use it as a life lesson and emerge all the better.

"I actually got cut from the soccer team," the soft-spoken Kiblinger said with a smile about a day of reckoning her junior year. "It's OK though. I love track, and I'm so glad that happened."

But as a twisted adage says, one coach's cut is another coach's gain. In this case, Davis, who coaches the track and field team, was the gainee.

"It was a blessing for us," Davis said. "When she came in, she was a little teary-eyed and she said, 'Coach, I've got something to tell ya. I got cut. Can I come out for track?' Tears were just rolling down.

"Inside I was like, 'Yeah, alright.' But I cried a little bit for her, too. That's really what she wanted to do. I said, 'Well, the Lord works in strange ways. There's a plan he's got for you.' It's kind of worked out that way for us."

It was a blow at the time for Kiblinger, who said she had played soccer since kindergarten. She even ran 100 miles before her freshman cross country season, all part of her plan to get in shape for spring soccer.

But her disappointment was a push in the direction where her talent shines best, and she was smart and mature enough to recognize it.

"It was meant to be," Kiblinger said. "I was disappointed for a day or so, but then I started right in on track. And I felt a lot more at home at track than I did at soccer."

Her attention had been divided between cross country and soccer her first two years at Notre Dame. With her feet no longer tethered to a soccer ball, she was able focus on moving them faster.

Her spring running in track led to increased dedication last summer, and in turn has led to a big senior season.

"I think the work that she's done through the summer and to here has worked well in that it has allowed her to peak at this time, which is what you always want to see," Davis said.

Kiblinger will play the role of the seasoned veteran as she is joined by teammates Breanna Conklin and Elsie Anderson for her third trip to the state meet Saturday.

A winning streak

She's entering her final high school cross country meet with a head of steam, having made her last two races her first two high school victories.

She first beat the field at the Farmington Invitational, including 2009 Class 2 champion Saga Barzowski of Arcadia Valley.

"That confidence that I gained at the Farmington meet, winning first, gave me confidence for districts," Kiblinger said. "I felt like I could go up there and possibly win it."

Her win last weekend made her the first district cross country champion in school history -- boys or girls. She ran a course- and school-record 18 minutes, 50 seconds.

It returns her to Oak Hills, a hilly course she placed 17th on last year in 20:01.24, a two-minute and 24-place improvement over her sophomore season.

She's hoping for a top-10 finish in her final high school cross country race.

"I definitely crave going back," Kiblinger said. "I definitely want to go back again and try to improve on my previous place."

Conklin and Anderson will be making their second trips. They were part of a Bulldogs team that made its first state appearance in girls cross country last year, when Notre Dame won its district and finished second in Class 3.

Kiblinger finished third in the district last year and was happy to take teammates after making a solo state appearance as a sophomore in 2009.

"It was tough because it was my first year and I was nervous," Kiblinger said. "I didn't have any of the girls there to help me."

Conklin was a freshman at the time and was among a group that attended in support of Kiblinger.

"I asked her how it was and everything, and she said, 'It's a lot easier to run with the team there and was happy to have us with her,'" Conklin said about last year.

Kiblinger's first state appearance came on the heels of a freshman season that was derailed by a stress fracture in her lower leg.

She increased her summer mileage to 400 miles before her all-state junior year, then upped her summer workload to 500 miles before this season.

"It's allowed her to do a lot of speed work that you normally couldn't do if you didn't have the base," Davis said about Kiblinger's in-season training.

Conklin finished 1 second ahead of Kiblinger at the season-opening Murphysboro (Ill.) Invitational in August, but Kiblinger has set the pace for the Bulldogs in every meet since. She's been dropping her times consistently throughout the year, with her latest time more than a minute faster than her Murphysboro time.

"I think I peaked a little bit sooner than her, and then she peaked," Conklin said.

Leader of the pack

But Kiblinger does more than move to the front of the Bulldogs' packs. She leads.

"I look up to her a lot. I like how she runs, and hope to be as fast as her my senior year," Conklin said. "She's one of the nicest people I've ever met."

Nice doesn't preclude fierce desire.

"She's really competitive," Conklin said. "But she doesn't like, say it. She's kind of quiet about it."

Anderson said she was a bundle of nerves as a freshman at last year's state meet. It was something Kiblinger could relate to, having lost her breakfast sometime before her sophomore encounter with the state's best.

"I cried before I ran," Anderson said. "But she kept everyone calm. She's very mature."

It's part of the quiet leadership Kiblinger provides. Her perseverance is one of the traits Anderson said she will remember most and call upon in her future running days.

"She's really positive and never negative about anything," Anderson said. "She never drops out of anything. She really motivates you and keeps you going."

Kiblinger's two-race winning streak came after a runner-up finish to Jackson senior standout Taylor Dickerson at the SEMO North Conference meet. She's been a top-three finisher in all but one race this season.

"We've always run real tough competition," Davis said. "To say she never won a race is really not that big a deal. The Dickerson girl, she's had to run against her quite often, and [Dickerson]'s very good. That's fine.

"They've made her better. That's the way we try to teach. It's OK to finish behind somebody. You're using them to get better."

Davis, a veteran coach, calls Kiblinger the best girls high school runner he's ever coached. And in the 1990s Davis coached former Kelly standout Amy Arteme, who later won the 1999 Ohio Valley Conference championship as a member of the Southeast Missouri State cross country team.

Kiblinger is unsure about her plans to run in college.

"Before this year I thought I never was going to run in college," Kiblinger said. "I wanted to focus on my school work. But after getting some interest from coaches and going up and talking to them, I'm opening up my mind and thinking about it."

Davis said Kiblinger's excellence in the classroom makes her an attractive recruit for college coaches, who could offer her an academic scholarship that wouldn't cost against a school's limited athletic scholarships.

"If she does well at the state meet, there's going to be a lot of people knocking," Davis said. "I told her to be prepared for that. I said, 'Don't turn anybody away. Keep all your avenues open. I think you have to do that.'"

It's all a bit strange and overwhelming to a girl who once thought her feet were best suited for kicking a ball.

"I had no idea any of this would happen," Kiblinger said. "I was just trying to keep in shape."

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