When Abby Culp, now a sophomore at the College of Charleston, thinks back to her days as one of the top high school runners in Carroll County, she can't help but be proud of what's happening with the track team at her alma mater.
Manchester Valley, a budding program that earned a girls team championship in the spring, followed by another during this past indoor season, is nothing short of thriving.
The sparkplug behind that success is Katie Leisher, who capped off a dominant indoor season with championships at the county, region and state levels in the 1,600 and 3,200-meter events.
Leisher, this winter's Times Girls Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year, was essentially a protégé of Culp's. But, with only two years to learn from the older, more experienced runner, it's what Leisher did once her training partner graduated that matters most.
"I guess I felt like it was my time to do my own thing," Leisher said. "And just step up to the plate and be a good role model for the rest of the team."
Mavericks coach Eric Baumgardner called the experience the two runners shared a "perfect storm" for Leisher. Being able to work with one of the top athletes in the sport on a daily basis made them each better.
When she first arrived as a freshman, Leisher wasn't sure where she fit at Manchester Valley. She tried her hand at cheerleading that fall, but it wasn't exciting enough for her. She said she'd rather be constantly moving, kind of like the cross country runners she'd catch a glimpse of outside while she was practicing with the cheerleading team. Envious of what they were able to do, she signed on for track that spring, and gravitated toward Culp almost instantly.
"She couldn't keep up with me for the first year, but she really stuck with it," Culp said. "She did everything I did. She trained with me. We did workouts together."
Leisher admits that when she first began to shadow Culp, she was intimidated. Culp, also the 2012 cross country Times Athlete of the Year, held multiple school records, including in the 1,600, before Leisher came along.
But, by the time Leisher ended her sophomore year, her times were all trending down. Culp's work in molding the next great Mavericks runner was complete, and it was time to see what Leisher could do on her own. Losing a training partner who also turned into a very close friend can sometimes be detrimental to an athlete's improvement. Was it jarring for Leisher? Not in the slightest.
"She had goals. She wanted to beat all of Abby's records," Baumgardner said. "What a kid to follow."
That's how Leisher improved and kept pace with the rest of the county, region and state. Taking what she learned from Culp during those formidable years in the program, the Mavericks runner stayed focused on the task at hand.
"I think she just realized the potential that she had," Culp said. "Most of running is internal, self motivation. Once you start making progress, it's really addicting."
This season, "dominant" would almost be an understatement when describing Leisher's impact on the Maryland track scene. Her talents far exceeded those at the 1A level, which is why there was hardly any competition for her once the championship season moved past the Carroll meet.
So, Leisher said she geared up for the county championship the most, knowing she had runners like Sarah Rinehart — the two-time defending girls cross country Athlete of the Year — to beat.
"Katie's a hard working kid," said Baumgardner, who also commended the runner's unselfishness when asked to move out of the 800 for states to help the team in the 4x400. "When she gets a goal in mind, she goes after it. She's relentless."
Baumgardner said it wasn't until Culp left that he saw the distinct change in focus from Leisher. Without someone guiding her on the track, or keeping her going in the classroom, Leisher said she really started to mature.
Her academic focus became sharper, much like her routines when she prepared for track meets. No longer is she concerned with distractions when there were more important things to train for. Leisher holds school records in the indoor 800 (2:24.79) and the 1,600 (5:16.06). With more to achieve this spring, like collecting her first outdoor individual crown, Leisher is gearing up for her last run as a Maverick.
She still doesn't consider herself a "team captain," which leaves room for improvement, and an opportunity to keep chasing those goals. "I just stay on the same level as my teammates," Leisher said. "Because we're all in this together and we want to win together."