On the road to success

Have spikes, will travel. Barnesville (OH) senior heads south this weekend seeking quality competition.


Sometime Friday, Stephanie Morgan will hop a flight and travel the 650 miles or so to Hoover, Alabama. Singlet and spikes in tow, Morgan travels light, no teammates or coaches accompany her. When the plane touches down, her father, who is making the trip by car, will meet her at the airport.

A veteran of national caliber meets since she burst on the prep scene as a freshman at Clarkston High School in Michigan, there was a time, not too long ago, when Morgan’s traveling party required more than just a solitary window or aisle seat. Her posse was an elite squad of distance studs.

But that was Michigan. This is Ohio. That was big city. This is small town. That was Clarkston. This is Barnesville. That was then. This is now.

Morgan was born in Michigan, but reared in Barnesville, Ohio, a hilly farm-speckled Southeastern Ohio town, whose population numbers less than 5,000. The family revisited Michigan for a brief two-year stint before returning to Barnesville before Morgan’s sophomore year. But not before Morgan, her older sister Jenny, who runs at Michigan, and a pair of teammates cruised to what was at the time a national record in the 4 x Mile relay.

Thus, with the latest move, one precipitated by her father’s job transfer, Morgan (pictured left, photo by Don Rich) traded her elite relay for a fledgling team. Taking everything in stride, she no longer laments the move, one that has her working out with her male counterparts and scouring the country for competitive races.

“I got to travel a lot more and getting to run with a great group of girls everyday, it was definitely one of the funnest things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Morgan, who averages about 40 miles a week, of her time in Michigan. “It was really enjoyable. Though, in a small town they give me the same opportunities that I had in a big school. They’re more lenient when I want to travel, if I need to step out of a race and go to a bigger race just because it’s a better experience.”

Part of that opportunity lands Morgan down south this weekend for the Great American XC Festival. There, in one of the better girls’ invitational fields ever assembled during the regular season, she will toe the line with the likes of Foot Locker national champs Ashley Brasovan, Kathy Kroeger as well as Jessica Tonn and Emily Sisson.

If Morgan and her coach are looking for a barometer as to her level of fitness and readiness as she prepares for the Ohio state meet and subsequent postseason, there will be no better acid test. This meet is lobster and caviar all wrapped up in one.

“She needed to go out and get exposure,” said Barnesville coach Mark Brown. “I don’t have any problem with that. She just hasn’t had anybody that’s pushed her in the regular season this year. We really can’t tell where she’s at. This will be a good gauge.

“In practice today she was really… I think she actually was kind of nervous about it. You don’t see her nervous about meets very often.”

That tends to be the case when you are rarely pushed. Morgan has run effortlessly this year, unchallenged in three invitational wins and her league championship meet last weekend. But things weren’t always that easy.

The effects of pinballing back and forth between Michigan and Ohio were noticeable, especially during her sophomore cross country season. Admittedly she struggled, if you can term a fifth-place finish at the state meet as a 10th grader trouble.

Morgan did.

“When I moved back down to a small town, I had to learn how to run on my own again,” said Morgan, who is considering Baylor, Illinois, North Carolina and Arizona State. “It took me a couple of months to get used to running by myself. I will admit it was hard, but after a couple months you learn from it, and you learn how to become an actual runner and how to train by yourself.”

Added Brown, who is assisted by Morgan’s mother, a former runner: “It was an adjustment for her coming back here. I don’t know how happy she was coming back here. At first I don’t think she was, but once she settled in, she did a lot better. It seemed like once track season came around she was more adjusted to the school and the kids. Then she really took off from there.”

Did she ever. The 2007 season ended with a pair of state track titles. But the race that really ignited things for Morgan was her first individual national title, winning the mile at Nike Outdoor Nationals in 4:46.31.

“That was the first year I ever started running individual races and I realized, ‘wow I can do this. I can run with the best.’ ”

Morgan was just getting started; the roll continued as a junior. A state individual cross country crown, a Foot Locker berth and a couple of more individual crowns on the track penned an impressive resume worthy of the Gatorade Athlete of the Year Award for the state of Ohio. Of course, the Mona Lisa of her 2007-08 collection just might have been a national-best time of 4:41.22 set en route to winning the prestigious Penn Relays mile. She followed that up with a third-place finish to Jordan Hasay and Alex Kosinski at the USATF Junior Nationals, barely missing an invite to Poland for World Juniors.

Still, despite all of her success, her fondest moments are those forged with her teammates, be it in Michigan or Ohio.

“She still wants to be part of the team and I know that’s something I really appreciate,” Brown said. “She’s never once suggested that maybe I should sit this one out, there’s no competition, or it’s not important or anything like that. She goes to all of them.”

Just not always by airplane.