River Hill's Jasmine Tiamfook repeats as girls cross country Runner of the Year

Those around Jasmine Tiamfook know that when she sets a goal, they can count on her to accomplish it.

Her River Hill cross country coaches saw Tiamfook, a senior captain, finish behind Hawks freshman Faith Meininger at the Howard County Invitational earlier this season and then hold her off at the league meet. They looked on as she won the 2A South region race by about 10 seconds. In the spring, they’ll watch Tiamfook pursue her other passions when she performs in her fourth straight musical. She’s played one of the main roles since she was a freshman.

“Let me tell you,” coach John DiFato brags. “The best Sebastian in ‘The Little Mermaid’ that I’ve ever seen was Jasmine last year.”

Not only has Tiamfook been able to juggle running and theater, but she’s been of Maryland’s most consistent girls cross country runners the past four seasons, never finishing worse than 11th at the state meet. She and her team won county and regional titles and Tiamfook took fifth at the 2A state championships, helping the Hawks earn runner-up honors at the event.

Behind these championship successes and speedy times, Tiamfook has been chosen to repeat as the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls cross country Runner of the Year.

“She’s one of the best athletes we’ve had from freshman year to senior year,” coach Paul Hugus said. “Traditionally you have girls that are really good as freshmen and sophomores and then they fall off a little bit as juniors and seniors. But Jasmine has been able to keep her results fairly steady and consistent over the four years that she’s been here with us.”

Tiamfook moved to the area from Massachusetts before her freshman year, so she first learned about Maryland cross country sitting in the bleachers at River Hill before tryouts. She was taken back by the program’s decorated history. In the nine years before that 2014 season, the Hawks secured three state titles, were runner-up four times and finished outside of the top three once. Their coach at the time, Earl Lauer, has won the most Maryland state championships between the boys and girls sides.

“I didn’t know if it was all talk either,” Tiamfook said. “Maybe the state wasn’t that good because I moved here from Massachusetts, a big running place. Turns out there’s all these great runners ... and the training here really got me to where I needed to be.”

Tiamfook wowed the coaches with her time trial that first day and displayed the necessary characteristics — good form, adequate aerobic conditioning and a strong work ethic — to become a heralded cross country runner. She served as the team’s No. 3 runner behind then-seniors Allison Krein and Elizabeth Oldhouser, both of whom ran competitively in college and played an integral role in the Hawks’ dominant state title run.

“We knew she was definitely going to be someone special; someone important even then,” DiFato said. “She started off special, and so the impression was, ‘great to have her come through this program for the next four years.’”

As a sophomore, Tiamfook was pleased with her seventh-place state finish but not content. With the seniors graduating, she would become the undisputed top runner on a gifted team. So, over the summer, she ran “heavy mileage” and began to realize her potential.

Hugus, who took over the River Hill girls team in 2015, has seen that strong-willed nature throughout Tiamfook’s career and views it as one of the biggest contributing factors to her sustained success. DiFato, meanwhile, knows she fully commits to whatever endeavor she pursues. And Lauer has seen how much she hates to lose.

So, they weren’t surprised that her relentless drive over the summer immediately paid off.

After placing fourth as a sophomore, Tiamfook narrowly won her first individual county title in what she views as one of the best moments of her career. She followed that up with another victory at the 3A East region championships.

Her seventh-place state meet finish (19 minutes, 42.80 seconds) capped an exceptional season for Tiamfook, who was recognized as the 2016 girls cross country Runner of the Year.

“I’ve had probably, over the years, a dozen or more Runners of the Year for Howard County boys and girls,” said Lauer, who has coached for more than 40 years. “She’s probably one of the better ones we’ve had here at River Hill for sure.”

But entering her senior year, Tiamfook understood the obstacles she’d have to overcome to repeat as a county and regional champion. Emily Beyer was back for her final season at Mt. Hebron. Faith Meininger, a highly touted freshman, joined the River Hill program after years of anticipation.

The Hawks also changed classifications from 3A to 2A, where Hugus said the competition would be “a lot more difficult.”

Then came the Howard County Invitational on Sept. 9, held at the same course Tiamfook won the county championship the year before. She ran more than a minute slower this time around and finished third, about 25 seconds behind Meininger.

“That did not sit well,” Lauer said.

Tiamfook came in behind her freshman teammate again at the William & Mary Invitational a week later and disappointed herself at River Hill’s senior meet four days after that, prompting a sit-down meeting with her coaches to refocus before the championship part of the season. That talk, as well as the two weeks off before the next race, helped Tiamfook return to championship form.

From there, career-defining accomplishments seemingly came by the week. Tiamfook ran a personal three-mile best of 18:25 at the Frank Keyser Invitational and beat Meininger by about 50 seconds. At the county meet, after Meininger erased Tiamfook’s lead during the final stretch, the senior still crossed the finish line four-tenths of a second faster.

"The two-time league champion then won her first 2A South region crown at a course she had never run before. All the while, she helped River Hill win county and regional titles.

Tiamfook admits she came up short in the 2A state championships, where she finished fourth (19:47.74), but neither she or Hugus faulted her for the finish. They agreed she put herself in position to win with about 400 meters to go. She just couldn’t close the gap during the final stretch.

While her high school cross country career is now over, her senior track season is still in its early stages. She’s currently running indoor track and field, another sport in which she earned All-County honors last season. In the spring, she’ll run outdoor track and perform in the school musical “Pippin.”

Tiamfook also plans to run collegiately at NYU and hopes to pair a theatre minor with a major in sports management.

She’s not ready to give up any of her passions just yet.

“She’s definitely true to herself,” DiFato said. “She moved down here, new environment, knew what she wanted to do; knew running was her sport, but loved music, loved theater. And she was never afraid of going after what she wanted to go for.”

Here are the first-team All-County runners:

Faith Meininger, River Hill, freshman

After nearly passing Tiamfook at the finish line to win the county title, Meininger came in second behind her veteran teammate at the 2A South regionals (19:35.44). At the state meet, Meininger secured a fifth-place finish (19:56.32) to help the Hawks earn runner-up to Hereford.

Emily Beyer, Mt. Hebron, senior

Beyer, a first-team all-county selection last year, was again one of the top runners in the area this season. She began her senior campaign strong, winning the Howard County Invitational in 19:06.00. After finishing third at the league meet (19:04.00), Beyer cruised to the 3A East title, winning the 5K race by about 30 seconds (19:23.56). She initially finished second at the 3A state meet but was later disqualified for a course violation.

Annabel Cortez, Reservoir, junior

It was another impressive year for Cortez, who also earned second-team All-County honors as a freshman in 2015. She finished fourth in the county meet (19:39.65), second behind Beyer at regionals (19:39.65) and third in the 3A state championships (19:49.14). Cortez was the county’s top finisher on the girls side.

Kirsten Wikner, Centennial, senior

Wikner burst onto the cross country scene this season with a sixth-place finish at the Howard County Invitational on Sept. 9. She followed that up by taking fifth at the county meet (19:42.67) and third at the 3A East region race (20:08.42). At states, she crossed the finish line sixth (20:15.58).

Alison Betler, Centennial, junior

This marks the second straight year Betler has made first-team All-County. She took sixth at the county meet (19:54.21) and third at regionals (20:12.23). At the 3A state championships, Betler was the third county runner to finish and the 11th overall (20:40.23).

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