Prep Cross Country, 10/09/2014

Lincoln North Star senior Jeralyn Poe leads the pack at the start of the Heartland Athletic Conference girls cross country meet Thursday at Pioneers Park.

KRISTIN STREFF/Lincoln Journal Star

Her race strategy needed some refining, sure, but several years ago Matt Musiel could already tell there was something special about Jeralyn Poe.

Anybody who’s seen a youth fun run or middle school track meet knows that many young runners start the race much faster than they can maintain. Poe was the same way.

“She would go out so hard — almost too hard,” said Musiel, the cross country coach at Lincoln North Star. “She would die, but she would still hang on, so she showed a lot of toughness and guts even at the age. We knew we’d maybe have to adjust her racing a little bit, but she had a motor that went right away, so you knew she’s a competitor and she loved to race.

“And I think the bottom line, which she still shows today, is she doesn't like to get beat.”

Now in her final season at North Star, and preparing to put the final touch on maybe the most dominating career ever by a cross country runner in the state, Poe hasn’t had to deal with losing very often.

In four years she’s won 29 of her 33 cross country races. Only twice has Poe lost a race in Nebraska.

At Friday’s state meet in Kearney she’ll attempt to become just the third person to win four individual state titles, joining Shona Jones of Hastings (Class A winner from 1982 to ’85) and Amber Fairbanks of Geneva (Class C or D winner ’93 to ’96.). Since 1993, the NSAA has awarded the all-class gold medal to the fastest runner in all classes. Poe is the only girl to win three times.

Her career has been impressive in any way you examine it, from the wins to consistently improving her times to the unassuming way she’s done it.

“I think she’s the best girl high school cross country runner we’ve had in Nebraska, just because she doesn’t lose,” Musiel said. “We can’t go back and race Amber Fairbanks and Shona Jones and some of these great ones, but she just hasn’t lost. She’s running against the best we have, and we have great girls in Nebraska.”

***

Poe began running at North American Martyrs Catholic School and also in Junior Olympic meets. She won a national meet in Kentucky, and when she returned compared her time to high school races.

Her father, Ron, was a state champion cross country and track runner in Casper, Wyoming, but it was her sister, Marissa Poe, who got her interested in the sport. Marissa also ran at North Star.

Looking book, Poe says it’s still surprising that she was able to win state as a freshman. She didn't win the big UNK Invite earlier that year, and she beat future NCAA Division I runners Sidney Hirsch from Millard West and Mary Hillis from Lincoln Southwest at state.

Poe can’t recall what her expectations were when this all started four years ago, but she knows it wasn’t this.

“I definitely did not expect it to go this well,” she said. “I was just thinking the other day I haven’t lost a cross country meet since sophomore year, and that’s really surprising. I have a lot of competition in this state right now, and not to lose for that long is crazy.”

That’s she’s been able to continue to set personal records is noteworthy considering she’s often been racing by herself. Once running alone at the front it becomes a race against the clock, with Poe keeping time on her watch and pushing herself to hit target split times.

She’s fun to watch, with a smooth running form and determined, yet relaxed, face that makes her running appear effortless.

One fan at a recent meet said that Poe had just run up a hill, but didn’t look like she had. Another spectator commented how Poe was fast, but isn’t arrogant, so it’s easy to cheer for her.

Poe notices fans cheering, but she knows it’s not just for her.

“Running is just a really positive sport,” she said. “In other sports the losing team kind of gets booed and everything, but in running the last-place person everybody still cheers them on.”

Her school also supports Poe, which was obvious when she was honored during a basketball game last year with another banner in the gym for winning the state runner of the year award.

The number of runners on the girls team has doubled since Poe came to North Star, and the team tied for second at the conference meet this year.

Poe has a lot of pride in her school, and it hurts her that North Star doesn’t have as good of reputation as some other schools, in her opinion.

“With me I feel like I’m doing my part to help get North Star’s good name back, and just the little stuff I do with running, I think it helps North Star a lot,” she said. “Being here, I know it’s a good school, but people on the outside, they don’t really get that.”

***

Lincoln Southwest coach Ryan Salem says one of the things that has  been most impressive about Poe is her consistency. More often young athletes make a mistake racing, or get injured, he said.

“Her legacy is she’s ready to crush it every week,” Salem said. “We’ve never seen anybody who had a four-year stretch like that.”

Musiel met with Poe and her family before her freshman year and laid out a plan. He wanted Poe not to just have one or two good years like some talented young female runners, but a great career. She’s increased her training each season.

“God gave her a lot of talent and ability, but coaches and the public don’t really know how hard she works to be a good runner,” Musiel said. “Those two things are just a deadly combination, talent and hard work.”

And while Poe’s sprint speed has been questioned, she’s won five races decided by five seconds or less.

Poe will run in college, with visits already taken or scheduled to Arizona State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Poe winning again at state isn’t automatic. During the district meet last week, Millard South senior Katie Spencer and Poe ran together for the first 4,000 meters of the 5,000 meter race (3.1 miles). Poe won by 4 seconds. The two have had several great races in cross country and track.

“It was closer than I would have hoped,” Poe said of districts. “It was good to have competition, and it’s exciting to see what will happen at state.”

***

Lincoln North Star’s Jeralyn Poe has won 29 of her 33 cross country races in four years. Here is how she did in each race:

2011 (4,000 meters) place/runners Time  Win margin 
Seward 1/144  15:59  :01 
Bellevue 9th (3K)  1/63 11:56 1:21
Sioux Falls, S.D. 1/112 14:55 :21
Iowa State 9/185 14:43 14:43
UNK 3/2224 15:19   
LPS 1/114 14:48 :03 
Conference 4/54 15:15  
District 1/47 15:25 :20 
State 1/99 14:38 :11
2012 (4,000 meters)      
Seward 1/162 16:25 :01
Bellevue 10th (3K) 1/58 12:12 1:33
Sioux City, S.D. 1/61 14:33 :23
Iowa State 2/178 14:24  
UNK 1/230 14:46 :04
LPS 1/111 14:56 :13
Conference 1/50 15:34 :22
District 1/49 14:54 :07 
State 1/100 14:42 :09
2013 (5,000 meters)      
Seward 1/197 19:22 :51
Sioux City, S.D. 1/61 13:52 :45
Iowa State 1/221 14:04 :07
UNK 1/227 18:34 1:00
LPS 1/107 18:29 :57
Conference 1/50 18:22 1:07
District 1/41 18:27 :16
State 1/101 18:14 :14
2014 (5,000 meters)      
Seward 1/166 19:22 1:06
Sioux Falls, S.D. 1/25 18:31 :49
Norfolk 1/76 18:51 1:41
UNK 1/217 18:39 :46
LPS 1/138 18:10 :25
Conference 1/51 18:11 :42
District 1/45 18:20  :04
State ?

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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