Simi Valley's Baxter setting a course to 'greatest ever' cross country label [Ventura County Star, Calif.]By Rhiannon Potkey, Ventura County Star, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Nov. 23--Rich Gonzalez knew he was witnessing something special.
Having followed high school cross country competition for more than 20 years, Gonzalez could sense Sarah Baxter was on the verge of history last month at the Mount San Antonio College Invitational.
The Simi Valley High junior was on a blistering pace, yet hardly labored as she gracefully strode along the 2.94-mile course.
Gonzalez and everyone around him could hardly believe their eyes when Baxter crossed the finish line in 16 minutes flat, shattering the course record by a full 16 seconds.
The next finisher crossed a distant second at 17:21.
"I have never seen anything like it before," said Gonzalez, the editor of PrepCalTrack.com. "In terms of actual performance, her performance at Mount SAC was the greatest ever. You really can't put anybody else ahead of her. It's truly mind-boggling what she did that day."
Although it's still too early to call Baxter the greatest high school cross country runner ever, she is on track to possibly earn that label.
Baxter, 16, has not lost a high school cross country race in three years.
She captured her third straight CIF-Southern Section divisional title last weekend, and will be going for her third straight CIF state title Saturday at Woodward Park in Fresno.
"Her credentials are golden," said Mike Kennedy, who has been the girls' high school editor for Track and Field News since 1982. "She is certainly one of the very best cross country runners that we have had, and is on her way to a great high school career. There is no reason to think things aren't going to get better and better."
Kennedy has witnessed several big races over the years, including 52 straight high school state meets. He places Baxter's performance at Mount SAC alongside Colorado's Melody Fairchild winning the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships by nearly a full minute in San Diego in 1990.
"Up until Sarah ran at Mount SAC, that was my best cross country run, and now I put those two on the same plane," Kennedy said. "It was a terrific performance, and it certainly ranks as one of the greatest high school cross country races of all time."
Although it's hard to compare times directly because of different course layouts and weather conditions, Gonzalez says enough conversions exist to come close.
"Every single marker that we use in looking at performances, Sarah's was unmatched," said Gonzalez, who has compiled the state rankings and record lists since the early 1990s. "The writing was on the wall leading up to Mount SAC. In some of her performances, she was very, very close to good boys' times. That is one of the last markers we use only when the girl is so good we find different ways to quantify how she stacks up."
Kim Newman knows exactly what it feels like to be compared to the best.
Formerly Kim Mortensen, Newman was considered the top distance runner in the nation as a senior at Thousand Oaks High in 1995-96.
She set the national record in the 3,200-meter race (9:48.59), won the Foot Locker Championships and was named Gatorade Player of the Year for track and field.
But even Newman, 32, has been impressed by Baxter's times
"They are incredible," said Newman, a middle school teacher at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village. "I can't imagine running that fast as a junior. I think her times are going to be untouchable for a really long time."
Although Newman received a lot of publicity for her feats, the attention devoted to high school athletics has multiplied greatly since she competed.
"In this day and age, there is so much more media attention with Facebook and everything," Newman said. "When I was running, it was really just newspaper reporters, and I just kind of tuned all that stuff out. The most pressure came from myself and this inner drive to do well."
But the quest for perfection can become overwhelming.
Newman accepted a scholarship to UCLA, but eventually had to stop competing after battling anorexia.
She hopes Baxter can maintain a healthy perspective.
"It's hard for an athlete of her caliber to just relax and not let everything be about running," Newman said. "But what you put into your body and your rest and your social life, all that matters to how you perform on race day. It's important to create a balance and make sure to have that social support and activities that give you a break from running."
Gonzalez believes Baxter is being guided in the right direction by her parents and Simi Valley head coach Roger Evans.
Baxter didn't participate in the Foot Locker Championships as a freshman in order to rest after her first high school season.
Baxter opted last year to participate in the Nike Cross Nationals with her Simi Valley team. She won the individual title, and is likely to defend her crown this year."I can't think of a teenager who has been handled as well when it comes to distance as Sarah," Gonzalez said. "She has definitely taken the right kind of steps you want to see with youth and athletics. So far, they are pushing the right buttons and bringing her along carefully."
As teenage girls age, many in the sport wonder how their physical growth will affect their running.
Some runners can peak early and regress. But Baxter has only improved.
She has grown nearly 10 inches since her freshman season and put on more muscle.
"She is just rolling," Kennedy said. "She has really come a long way in the last couple of years and has gained a great deal of strength. She is quite taller and her form has gotten better, so when you see her run, you realize you have something special."
Baxter still can't comprehend all the attention she's receiving for her running. The autograph requests, the television appearances and the huge crowds are all a bit overwhelming.
"It is really weird," Baxter said. "I don't really see it yet. I don't think what I'm doing is really that big of a deal. It's a little strange."
While many are pondering the long-term possibilities for an athlete like Baxter, she is only focused on one thing.
"I want to get to college and run in college, hopefully," Baxter said. "I want to get to a good running school, and I want to get somewhere where I can get a good education, too."
Baxter should have her pick of top colleges as the most sought-after distance recruit.
Barring injury, she likely will arrive with enough high school titles, accolades and records to solidify her inclusion in the "best-ever" discussion.
"The book is still open and the tale is still being written," Kennedy said. "But certainly the early chapters are excellent."
(c)2012 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services