Jenna Gearing knew nothing would come easy in 2014.
Moving up to Class AAAA, the two-time AAA state champion cross country runner from White County High was stepping into a classification that included two-time AAAA champ Morgan Ilse and Ilse’s speedy Marist teammates.
Gearing didn’t back down from the challenge. She finished the state championship race at Carrollton in her best time yet on that course (19:26.85) after collecting the Region 8-AAAA title, her third individual region crown, at Unicoi State Park.
But Ilse’s blazing 18:24.90 secured the state title, her third, as Marist swept the top three spots and Gearing was fourth, less than a quarter of a second behind third place.
The Marist runners provided a positive push for Gearing.
“Having competitors is a good thing,” Gearing said. “It always makes you a better runner than you are. It makes me understand what running is about. No matter where I’m at, there’s always going to be someone ahead of me, which pushes me to run harder.”
Gearing and her teammates knew they had to step up their efforts. The Lady Warriors did just that, earning a third straight region title and taking fourth place in the state.
“It made our team a lot closer,” Gearing said. “And it made more individuals better runners.”
For her efforts, Gearing is The Times’ 2014 Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
The White County junior pointed to the region championship and her personal record (17:47.43) at the Alexander High School Asics Invitational as highlights of her season.
Warriors coach Sam Borg said the stiff competition in Class AAAA was tough mentally on Gearing, but she rose to the occasion by running faster than she ever had.
“I call her the Michael Jordan of cross country,” Borg said. “When your fastest runner is also your hardest worker, it really helps your team.”
Gearing said the new competitors and different challenges of the season helped her realize the need to focus on the length of the race rather than just starting strong. She also had to push through and not give up when things got tough, something she hopes to further improve upon with offseason mental training.
“She still hasn’t hit her potential yet,” Borg said. “It’s exciting to see that.”
A regular presence in pushing Gearing during the season was Chestatee freshman Lindsey Grater, who was second behind Gearing in 8-AAAA and one spot behind her with a fifth-place finish at state. Even though there was still a 29-second gap between those two at state, Gearing was always aware of Grater.
“It’s nice having her there because she’s a freshman and she’s always going to push,” Gearing said. “I can never really take a win for granted. I know that if I want it, I have to work for it.”
Borg said Gearing is being recruited by high-level Division I schools and that the increased competition of 2014 should help her in preparing for that jump to the next level.
“Her mailbox is full,” Borg said.
But there’s still plenty to be done while still at White County. Gearing is in the midst of basketball season and will soon begin track, a sport in which she is coming off 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter titles. She is a two-time state champ in the 3,200.
Gearing will aim to pick up a fourth region championship during her senior season of cross country while also shooting for a third state title. She knows it will require a lot of training. Borg said he looks forward to seeing it play out after a 2014 season that mixed improvement and disappointment.
“Looking back on it, this might have been the perfect situation for her,” Borg said. “She got faster, which gave her confidence. And she got beat, which makes her hungry.”