The opening practice on the opening day of cross-country season at L’Anse Creuse North looked a bit like a junior high dance.
The girls sat in a circle, giggling and talking, and the boys stood to the side in another group.
That changed when coach Jason Hubbard began telling his runners how far they each would be running Wednesday morning at 7, and suddenly they were off — taking it to the streets, as the Doobie Brothers put it so succinctly a generation ago.
Among the runners was Karenna Duffey, a whisper of a girl. She looks like the other girls on the team, but once she begins to run you can tell there is a difference.
Nine months ago, Duffey finished third in the Division 1 state championship meet in 17:33.1. She had the best time of any freshman in any division, and if you remember how cold and windy it was that November day at Michigan International Speedway, you are more impressed.
“I think I was more excited than surprised,” she said. “I was a little surprised because my times dropped by almost a minute and a half from before I started cross-country, so that was pretty neat. But I’m really more excited for this upcoming season because I think I can do a lot better than I did last season.”
A lot better? She can do only two places better than a year ago.
“I mean, it would be really nice to be state champ,” she said with a smile. “Runner-up would still be better than last year.”
Last year wasn’t bad for anyone, much less a freshman. But Hubbard was only mildly surprised by how well Duffey performed after she won the Spartan Invitational Division 1 race.
“She busted one out that day, and that kind of started the ball rolling,” he said. “That was the first time that she kind of really got her legs under her and raced. We were a little surprised that she won by 10 or 15 seconds and the gap she put on girls.”
The gap was 13 seconds, and her time of 18:28 let her know she was capable of becoming an elite runner despite being a freshman.
“That was probably my favorite individual race,” Duffey said. “That was the first race that I really showed myself that if I worked hard, if I can believe in myself, I can do things that are incredible.”
Dropping almost a minute off her time at the state meet was pretty incredible, and the list of incredibles is likely to grow this fall.
Junior Thomas Michno is the best runner on the boys team, and he remembers how impressive Duffey was from the first practice a year ago.
“It’s just the way she races,” he said. “She’s had a lot of speed just from growing up. She played soccer. As she started doing some distance, I think that really made her fierce when it came to racing.”
Though Duffey doesn’t look like she could be fierce at anything, once the starter’s pistol goes off, she is all that and more.
She has an inner drive, which is why after taking a week off following the state track meet, Duffey hasn’t missed a day of running, slowly increasing her mileage so she now is running more than 40 miles a week.
“She’s still new to running, so she’s still got to learn to train consistently and work on pace and all kinds of stuff like that,” Hubbard said. “She’s definitely got work to do, so she’s got lots of room to improve, which is a great thing.”
We will find out how great this fall.