There's a lot more buzz around C. Milton Wright sophomore cross country runner Haley Cummins than there was this time last year.
A year ago, Cummins was an unknown entity in the Maryland cross country scene. She was a freshman who had decided to run because she wanted to stay in shape for lacrosse season and had a couple friends on the team.
Despite Cummins originally viewing cross country as preparation for another sport, Mustangs coach Donnie Mickey immediately noticed her.
"We always open with a really hard work out," Mickey said. "Last year, we had a lot of talented girls on the team, and in that first workout, Haley went out with the lead girls. She ended up falling back behind them, but when someone does that during their first practice it opens your eyes. When she won our opening invitational without really knowing what she was doing it really grabbed my attention. When you watch her run it doesn't look like she's running at all."
That opening win in C. Milton Wright's Mustang Invitational was the start of an impressive campaign for Cummins.
Cummins continued to win major races, including the Harford County Invite, Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference Championship and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Class 3A North regional.
Her final race of the season was the MPSSAA 3A state championship at Hereford's famed course, one which Cummins had never run before.
"Going into it we'd said there were five girls that had legitimate chances to win, and Haley was one of them," Mickey said. "We laugh about it now because we had also talked about strategy. My advice was to stick with the more experienced runners at the front of the pack and try to pick up the pace in the second half. Instead, the starting gun goes off and she's immediately in the lead -- our strategy went right out the window, but hers was better that day."
Cummins ran away from the pack and spent the majority of the race without any competitors within touching distance of her. She won the race in 18 minutes, 41.6 seconds, beating second-place finisher Molly Barrick from Northern of Calvert County by more than 11 seconds.
"When I started, I felt really good, so I picked it up," Cummins said. "I found myself in the front by a good amount, so I just tried to maintain that same pace. Crossing the finish line, I mostly just felt relief because of the lead I'd built up. It was exciting. I was beyond happy. I didn't expect to finish as far ahead as I did."
Now, Cummins has to find a way to follow up her terrific freshman season.
Her success last fall did not stop Cummins from playing lacrosse in the spring and summer. That worked for Mickey, who likes to have his runners train five or six times a week, so competing in lacrosse games and practices went toward Cummins' weekly total.
While many cross country runners spend preseason working up their stamina, Cummins will be trying to improve on the mental side of the sport.
"I need to work on pacing myself, especially at the beginning of races," Cummins said. "Sometimes before races I get way too excited, so I go way too fast when I need to relax and calm down."
It's a sentiment that's shared by her coach, who already sees her making strides.
"She needs to take the things she learned last year and apply them," Mickey said. "I want her to get smarter in training, trying different tactics, and we've already seen some of those things in practice. All kids at the start of any sport have to continue to push their knowledge to improve. Haley's a great kid who works extremely hard, so it's not shocking that she's doing a great job with it."
Both Cummins and Mickey think winning another state championship is a reasonable goal, but she acknowledged her sophomore season will be tougher than her first year because she will have a target on her back after last season's success.
Cummins, however, couldn't be more excited.
"I'm really competitive, so I like the races where there's people close behind me that want to catch and get in front of me," she said. "It's more fun, and it definitely helps make me go faster."
Photo Credit: Sherry Cummins