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Homewood cross country
Homewood freshman cross-country runner Lainey Phelps took first place at the Class 6A, Section 3 meet, held Thursday, Nov. 3, at Veterans Park in Hoover, Ala.
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Homewood cross country
Homewood High School cross-country runner Lainey Phelps ran an uncontested race at the AHSAA State Cross Country Championships on Saturday, Nov. 12. She won the Class 6A title by more than 75 seconds.
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Homewood cross country
Homewood High School cross-country runner Lainey Phelps was all smiles after winning the Class 6A girls state championship on Saturday, Nov. 12.
Homewood High School freshman Lainey Phelps can add one more distinction to her rapidly growing resume: 2016-2017 Gatorade Alabama Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Gatorade released its list of state award winners on Monday morning, and Phelps was the company's choice in Alabama. The honor was given in recognition of Phelps' exceptional achievement on the cross-country course last fall, when she led the Homewood girls to their first state title in school history.
"She definitely surpassed my expectations," said Homewood head cross-country coach Lars Porter. "As coaches, we knew she was going to be good. I didn't realize how good until she showed us some of her true ability very late in the season."
Phelps won six races during her freshman campaign, including the AHSAA Class 6A state championship on Nov. 12. Her first-place 5K time of 18 minutes, 2.13 seconds bested her nearest 6A competitor by well over a minute. It was the first state individual gold medal of her young career.
Two weeks after the state meet, Phelps tallied an impressive 22nd-place finish at the Foot Locker South Regional in Charlotte, North Carolina. The postseason meet featured many of the Southeast's top high school runners.
Earlier in the fall, Phelps recorded what became the state's fastest girls 5K time of the 2016 season. She ran 17:42.61 at the Jesse Owens Classic on Oct. 1.
"Words cannot adequately express how proud we are of Lainey for winning this prestigious award as a freshman, because this is an award that athletes work their entire high school careers to earn," Homewood head track and field coach Tom Esslinger said. "Lainey is the kind of exceptional athlete that rarely comes around, and she is the type of individual that can catapult a cross country and track and field program to an even higher level."
Porter, her cross-country coach, said there are a couple of things that set Phelps apart from the pack. The first, he said, is the blend of speed and endurance that composes her "incredible talent." The second, he said, is how she managed the competition, especially late in the season.
"We typically see athletes plateau or become comfortable with their place after the first month," Porter said. "Late in the season, she was still improving at a drastic pace -- she continued to impress us as coaches."
According to Esslinger, Phelps is the second member of the Patriots cross-country and track and field program to be selected as a Gatorade award winner. In 2015, Kiara Williams was named the state's track and field athlete of the year. Williams, a standout in the sprints, hurdles and jumps, signed with Alabama.
As a Gatorade state award winner, Phelps is now in contention to earn the title of Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. The selection will be announced later this month.
Notably, Phelps' success in cross-country has transferred over to the track this indoor season. To date, she has notched performances in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs that place her among the nation's prep elite.
Her personal-best 1,600 time of 4:58.29 is the current U.S. No. 3 mark. Her 3,200 time of 10:44.77 is the current U.S. No.1.
But the Gatorade award also acknowledges excellence away from competition; Phelps shines there, too.
According to the official Gatorade press release, Phelps has maintained a 4.0 GPA and volunteered with Homewood's Key Club at The Bell Center, which provides early intervention services to children at risk for developmental delay.
"Lainey's athletic accomplishments at this point are incredible, but what makes us all even more impressed by her is the energy, enthusiasm, optimism and leadership she already brings to our program," Esslinger said. "Those are characteristics that make everyone else better."
*This story was last updated Monday, Jan. 23, at 12:05 p.m.