Mackenzie Butler was a once-in-a-career runner for Don Mealick.
The Licking Valley coach has had other all-league performers and runners at the state meet. He, however, never has had an athlete quite like Butler with her dogged determination and relentless work ethic. An aw-shucks personality does not hurt.
“She is the hardest-working person I have had,” Mealick said. “She has run through injuries over the years, and she has run when she has been sick. I don’t remember her having a bad race. She never let anybody down to be honest with you.”
Beyond Butler’s five invitational titles this fall, her second consecutive Mid-State League-Ohio Division title and an All-Ohio finish, Butler’s ability to motivate and captivate young teammates could be her lasting impact on the Valley program.
It also made Butler The Advocate’s 2012 Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Valley’s team mostly had been Butler and everyone else her first three seasons. That changed this season.
“In addition to what she did as an individual this year, she really lifted the team,” Mealick said. “Her work ethic has really rubbed off on the girls. We had girls that did more miles and more workouts this year than any team I have ever had in the past.”
The Panthers placed fourth in a strong MSL-Ohio field. They were fifth in the district meet a week later, falling 14 points short of a regional berth. It particularly was heartbreaking because the Central District qualified only four girls teams to regional meets, unlike the boys, who qualified eight.
“This year, we had the closest team ever,” Butler said. “It has just been an amazing experience. Not going to regionals, that was a huge disappointment because we all tried our best given the conditions, and we all just ran our hearts out.”
When Butler sets a goal, it is rare she misses it. She fell during the 2011 Division II state meet and finished 28th, three spots shy of All-Ohio honors.
From that point, Butler had redemption on her mind. Her goal went from top 25 to top 15, which is a spot on the podium. On Nov. 3, the goal became top 10. She finished — what else? — 10th in a personal-best time of 18:40.27.
“I knew that I had to start out really fast to keep in contact with the top group,” Butler said. “I think I was going more for the place instead of the time. Any time would have been OK as long as I got top 15. That is what I kept in my mind the whole race.”
Butler’s idea of an off day is a couple of miles. She trained during the winter, and it paid off in an All-Ohio finish in the 1,600 in track. The summer and fall was spent following a training schedule developed by Mealick’s son, Chris.
After winning the MSL-Ohio meet, Butler carefully picked her way through the competition, placing third and fifth in the district and regional meets. Everything pointed toward a top finish at the state meet.
“Going down the last 200 meters, when I saw the time, I was like: ‘Oh man, this will definitely be a (personal best),'” Butler said. “After I had finished the race, I knew that I had gotten 18:40, and it just felt really good.”
Valley will return five runners in 2013, graduating just Butler and classmate Cara Dillon. The Panthers wanted to express their gratitude to Butler for her commitment to them.
All of Butler’s teammates trained with her in the days leading to the regional meet. They made as many practices as they could when winter sports did not conflict the next week.
Then at the state meet at National Trail Raceway, it was unmistakable who the Panthers were rooting for.
“It made me tear up right before the race, seeing them painted and having the ‘We are LV’ flags,” Butler said. “It was a very humbling experience to see them there cheering for me.”