HOWARD COUNTY, MD — For Howard’s Amanda Eliker, a burgeoning cross country career actually began on the soccer field.
It was the final few days of summer vacation leading up to her sophomore year, and Eliker was in the midst of soccer tryouts. She would presumably play for the Lions in the fall before running indoor and outdoor track the next two seasons, just like she did as a freshman.
Eliker always enjoyed running and excelled at it, so much so that she broke six minutes in the mile in the spring and then finished first in the event at tryouts. As for her soccer skills, she understood her limitations, so made sure to have a backup plan.
“Before the last day of tryouts, me and my dad, we decided that if I get cut, then I’d go to Chipotle and that if I made it, I’d go to chipotle,” Eliker said. “Like we were going to celebrate either way because I was either going to be on the cross country team or the soccer team.”
The next day Eliker arrived at cross country practice with athletes and coaches she already built relationships with. It was as if track never ended. It felt like home.
“I was so in love with it from the very first day.”
A lot has changed since Eliker began focusing fully on a craft she’s been working at since third grade. For one, she’s already won a county championship and led Howard to the team title. She’s also posted a runner-up finish at regionals and placed top-12 in the state meet — twice.
But perhaps most impressive is that it’s been less than 15 months since she joined the Lions’ program, she’s already earned one of the county’s greatest honors: Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls cross country Runner of the Year.
“I was like, ‘Man, these girls are two really good runners, and they’re trying out for sports that aren’t cross country,’” coach Zachary Dickerson said of Eliker and fellow All-County junior Emily Gorny, who was cut from the volleyball team the same fall. “Fortunately, unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, they both got cut from those sports, so [Amanda] came over to cross country. I think it took her about a week before she realized that this was a great thing that happened; that she ended up getting cut and it was one door closed but one opened, and I think she fell in love with cross country right away.”
Dickerson’s optimism in regard to Eliker and Gorny stemmed from both runners breaking six minutes in the mile their freshman year and knowing that he had three more years to try and maximize their potential.
Eliker’s sophomore year further heightened that ceiling. With a time of 20 minutes, 1.6 seconds, she finished seventh in her cross country county championship debut, which went a long way in her becoming one of three underclassmen to earn All-County honors. She then followed her promising county performance by securing 12th at the 4A North region meet and 42nd at her first state meet. Had she competed in the 2A or 3A classifications like the rest of the county programs did, Eliker’s effort would have resulted in a top-25 finish.
“She wasn’t the best runner, but for a first-year cross country runner to do that was impressive,” Dickerson said of Eliker’s early accomplishments. “So, I knew coming into this season, especially what she did for outdoor track last year, running 5:27 [in the mile] and running 11:49 in the two mile, she had already put herself as one of the top runners in the county based on her track PRs the previous season.”
Further expediting Eliker’s development was her commitment to doing what Dickerson commonly refers to as “the little things.” Family vacation was the only luxury that kept Eliker from conditioning runs this past summer, and even then she would text Dickerson for a workout schedule. She’s also prioritized nutrition, sleep and anything else that would ensure she could attack each workout in an optimal state. She did not intend to be among the best county runners. She wanted to be No. 1.
That title belonged with River Hill sophomore Faith Meininger entering the county race, and Eliker and Dickerson alike knew that if Eliker ran with Meininger the first mile, she would likely fall behind before the finish line. So, after surging to the front for the first 800 meters, Eliker backed off Meininger and stayed within 50 meters for much of the race.
Giving Eliker confidence were her two running buddies, Gorny and sophomore Sara Kindbom. With Kinbom in her rearview mirror at counties, Eliker kept pushing herself to stay ahead. Eventually she caught Meininger, and soon after she passed her. Kinbom followed suit.
“I was in my best mindset that race,” said Eliker, who coasted to the individual league championship in 18:51.95. “I wasn’t thinking anything negative. Usually my third mile is kind of slow, but that one, my third mile was much faster than my second and I just felt so good about it the entire time.”
With Kindbom finishing second and Gorny snagging seventh, Howard distanced themselves from the pack to win its first girls’ county championship since 2007. And a little more than a week later, the trio was at the forefront of the Lions’ first-ever 4A North title. Eliker did her part by finishing second with a personal-record time of 19:14.30.
At the state meet, Eliker took the lead at the two-and-a-half mile mark but could not hold onto it. She said negative thoughts started creeping into her head, such as ‘you shoudn’t be in front,’ and ‘you shouldn’t be winning,’ and as a result she settled for fifth (19:33.93). Still, Howard finished as the team runner-up behind Severna Park.
To Dickerson and Eliker, though, being pessimistic at times was understandable for a runner who made marked improvement in just a year. Eliker simply was not used to being a title contender at meets like regionals and states. The runners she once admired, she was now running with.
However, having now experienced postseason success, Eliker is ready to cap her career with an even more impressive senior campaign.
“There’s a fantastic group of girls that are returning state-wide,” Dickerson said. “And she’s one of them.”
Also named to the first team:
Alison Betler, Centennial, senior
Betler capped her illustrious cross country career with another impressive campaign. She began the postseason slate with a sixth-place finish (19:36.79) at counties and then helped Centennial win the 3A east region meet by securing fourth (20:41.00). At states, her time of 20:39.84 was good for 16th place.
Cora Blount, Centennial, senior
Blount served as the second half of Centennial’s dymanic duo this fall, placing fifth (personal-best 19:32.23) at the county championships, second (20:18.00) at the region meet and 14th (20:38.86) at the state event.
Annabel Cortez, Reservoir, senior
Cortez earned first-team All-County honors for the second straight season and was the top county runner in the 3A classification. There was her fourth-place finish (19:30.18) at the league meet and her individual championship (20:09.00). at the 3A East regionals. Her 12th-place finish (20:37.91) in the 3A state race was the best among league runners.
It was a breakout season for Gorny, who helped the Lions win their first county championship since 2007 and their first-ever 4A North title thanks to placing seventh (19:53.15) and sixth (19:43.10), respectively. She then finished 13th (20:08.66) at the state championships.
Sara Kindbom, Howard, sophomore
Kindbom was also a significant contributor to the Lions’ county and region championship squads. She finished right behind league champion Amanda Eliker at counties with a time of 18:59.16, crossed the finish line fifth at regionals (19:25.6) and rounded out the top 10 (19:56.98) at states.
Faith Meininger, River Hill, sophomore
Meininger followed up an exquisite freshman campaign by winning four races, including the 2A South region title, and earning several top finishes this fall. Other postseason highlights were a third-place finish (19:18.95) at the league meet and a 10th-place result (20:54.67) at the state championships.
Emily Shorb, Glenelg Country, senior
Shorb set a personal-record time of 20:44.66 to finish 10th at the Howard County Invitational on Sept. 8 and carried that momentum throughout the season. She then ran another personal best, 20:46.27, to win the IAAM Cross Country Championships on Oct. 30.