It's often said that track and field provides the perfect opportunity for high school athletes to stay in shape during the offseason — a sentiment diehard athletes in the sport often scoff at.
Unfortunately, there was a time that Atholton's Jen Bleakney, an all-county field hockey player who has already committed to Syracuse University, fell victim to that mindset.
She was fast, athletic and full of the raw potential coaches crave in a runner. Yet, it was her unwillingness to give the sport her undivided attention that held her back from what she could fully achieve.
Everything changed after running her first competitive indoor mile as a sophomore last season. It was then that Bleakney noticed just how much success she could have on the track.
One year later, a conflict forced the speedy Raider to miss the indoor regional meet. Feeling disappointed, and a little angry at herself, it finally hit her: She was just as good on the track as she was with field hockey, and there was no reason why she couldn't be dominant in both.
"I realized that I didn't get to go (to regionals), and that wasted my opportunity (to go to states)," she said. "It added a little more drive to my outdoor season."
Atholton coach Ivan Alvarado called the situation "make it, or break it," adding that Bleakney aimed to channel that frustration into positive results.
So, the junior entered this spring with a vengeance, and after going undefeated in the 1,600 all season long — including at the state championship meet, where she collected two more titles as well — Bleakney has been named the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls outdoor track Athlete of the Year.
"It's a really big honor for me. I didn't see it coming at all," said Bleakney, who acknowledged all the other deserving candidates from a county that piled up multiple team and individual titles on the regional and state levels. "I know there are a lot of great runners in this county."
Bleakney is the second consecutive female athlete competing in the 800- and 1,600-meter runs to win Athlete of the Year honors, dating back to the indoor season with Reservoir's Karli Smiraglia — a runner Alvarado said his pupil tends to emulate.
"She's a coach's dream," he added. "She gives you 100 percent effort. You tell her a workout, a certain way you want it done, and she'll do it. No complaints."
With time management skills on her side — she's also a member of her school's Best Buddies program — Bleakney began to put the necessary work into strengthening her race IQ. Before, she had mostly relied on her athleticism and talent alone. She often found herself applying the simple "run faster than the others" rule as her form of training.
Soon she was jumping out to substantial leads that many of her competitors couldn't contend with, creating her own style of racing that few could beat.
This season, Alvarado said her technique as a true runner has come full circle.
"She's learning to race now," he said. "That shows me much more than any workout I can throw her way. She's establishing herself as a well-rounded runner.
"Her future looks bright."
In addition to her wins on the 1,600 circuit, Bleakney earned the top spot in the 800 and 4x800 relay at the county, regional and state meets. She also added a county victory in the 4x400 (4:08.75).
Using her field hockey background as guidance, Bleakney has learned the importance of being a teammate in the often individually dominated sport of track and field.
"A lot of people don't see it as a team sport, but when you look at it, you're training with the others in practice," she said. "Your teammates are really the ones making you better."
That especially rang true for Bleakney, whose experience worked in her favor for both relay races. Alvarado said that team dynamic brings out her "inner beast." He knows the team will always get her best because of it.
Bleakney's work with relay teammates Olivia Healey, Jill Greenwald, Elly VanVranken and Rebekah Markovitz benefitted the Raiders as they fought for a fourth-place finish as a team at the state championship meet.
Bleakney's ability to dance between her track success and field hockey future makes for an impressive balancing act. With her coaches — both in high school and at Syracuse — on her side, she has the freedom to pursue that success in both fields.
"I'm a big supporter and a big fan of her doing both sports," Alvarado said. "Not everyone is capable of handling both workloads, but I think she gets the pass. She has found a way to master both."
While Alvarado said he selfishly wishes his best runner would jump over to cross country in the fall, he knows the program is lucky to have her for as long as it does.
Bleakney's next goal is to bring Atholton its second field hockey state championship in three years. Though coach Martie Dyer said the junior "lives, eats, breathes and sleeps field hockey" in the 2013 all-county feature, that doesn't mean track and field will take a backseat like it used to.
Also named to the all-county team are:
Sydney Biniak, Howard
Events: high jump, long jump, triple jump, relays
Postseason highlights: Won high jump, long jump and triple jump at counties. Won high jump, finished second in long jump and fifth in triple jump at regionals. Placed second in high jump at states. Ran on county championship 4x200 team.
Jamila Brown, Wilde Lake
Events: 100, 200, 400-meter dashes, relays
Postseason highlights: Placed first in the 100 and 200 at counties and regionals. Placed first in the 400 at counties, and third at regionals. Finished second in the 100 and 200 at states. Part of second-place 4x100 team at regionals, and placed in 4x200 at counties.
Sophie Caplan, River Hill
Events: high jump, pole vault, long jump
Postseason highlights: Finished sixth in high jump, long jump and triple jump at counties. Won the pole vault at regionals, and finished third at states.
Bre Hamilton, Howard
Events: 100, 200-meter dashes, long jump, relays
Postseason highlights: Finished second in the 100 at counties and fourth at regionals. Finished second in the 200 at counties and fourth at regionals. Finished fourth in the long jump at counties and sixth at regionals. Ran on 4x100 team that finished first at counties, second at regionals and fourth at states.
Brit Lang, Oakland Mills
Events: 1,600, 3,200-meter run
Postseason highlights: Won the 3,200 and finished third in the 1,600 at counties. Finished second in the 1,600 and third in the 3,200 at regionals. Placed in 3,200 at states.
Julia Nardone, Glenelg
Events: 800, 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs
Postseason highlights: Finished second in the 800 and 1,600 at counties. Won the 3,200, finished second in the 1,600 and third in the 800 at regionals. Finished fifth in the 1,600 and third in the 3,200 at states.
Julia Reed, Hammond
Events: 1,600, 3,200-meter runs
Postseason highlights: Finished fifth at counties and sixth at regionals in the 1,600. Finished second in the 3,200 at counties and regionals.
Taylor Scaife, Howard
Events: shot put, discus
Postseason highlights: Won the shot put and finished fourth in discus at counties. Won shot put at regionals and finished third at states.
Taylor Selber, Long Reach
Events: 100 and 300-meter hurdles, relays
Postseason highlights: Won both hurdles races at counties and regionals. Finished second in the 100-meter hurdles and fourth in 300-meter hurdles at states. Ran on 4x100 team that finished fourth at regionals and fifth at states. Ran on 4x200 team that finished third at regionals. Placed at counties on 4x400 team.
Briana Taborn, Atholton
Events: shot put, discus
Postseason highlights: Won the discus and finished second in shot put at counties. Won both events at regionals and states.
Kimara Walker, Mt. Hebron
Events: Long jump, triple jump, relays
Postseason highlights: Won long jump and placed fifth in triple jump at regionals. Placed in triple jump at states. Ran on 4x100 relay team that scored at counties.