Jasmine Tiamfook was about 50 yards away from winning her first county championship, and in the corner of her eye she could see her brother Dwayne sprinting along the sideline with her.
"I was so afraid I was going to get disqualified," said the River Hill junior. "I was like stop running."
Tiamfook knew Mt. Hebron's Emily Beyer wasn't too far behind, but she wasn't about to let the moment slip away. Ultimately, she crossed the finish line first at Centennial High School on Oct. 26 and took home her first county championship crown — a feat she had been working toward for the past three seasons.
"He was running along the track at the finish and he was like, 'Jas, you got to want it,' because Emily was so close behind me and [my family was] like, 'You fought for it and you really deserved it,'" Tiamfook recalled. "When I crossed the line I was like, 'finally,' after trying so hard for so long. It was just disbelief if I am being completely honest. The competition was so good. Our counties are really competitive, so to come up where I came was just amazing. It was one of the goals I had for my high school career to win at least once and to have that experience. It was one of the most amazing high school experiences I think I will ever have."
A week after the break-through moment Tiamfook came back and competed on the same course to finish with the same result — a win. She placed first at the 3A East regional championship race with a time of 19 minutes, 9.5 seconds.
"I did not expect that at all for myself," Tiamfook said of solidifying herself as one of the best runners in the state. "But it was good because my coaches and my team expected it from me and they helped keep me motivated to do it."
With her individual success also came the team success. She helped the Hawks win team titles at both counties and regionals, and at the 3A state meet Dec. 12 at Hereford High School Tiamfook led River Hill with a seventh-place finish.
Because of those accomplishments, Tiamfook has been named the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls cross country Runner of the Year.
"I tried to put a lot less pressure on myself [this year]," she said. "I used to try and go out there to win, but it was more of a pressured win instead of just going out and winning because it's fun. And when you have more fun rather than putting pressure on yourself it makes running easier."
Throughout the season Tiamfook had stayed in touch with reigning girls Howard County Times Runner of the Year (in both cross country and outdoor track) Brit Lang, who graduated from Oakland Mills last season and is one of the most accomplished runners to come out of Howard County in recent history.
When she learned Tiamfook had taken the county title this season, Lang made sure to reach out and congratulate her on the accomplishment.
"We are really great friends and especially to have that title come from her was a really big thing for me and she was motivating me through the whole thing," Timafook said. "She texted me after and congratulated me. That meant everything. Having someone so talented believe that I could do something that was the most helpful thing I think. Just having a support system at all was really key and then having someone of her caliber was even more exciting. A Division-I athlete who has won counties, the [Howard County] Invite, the championship so many times and was motivating me and telling me I could when I was denying it."
Unlike Lang, whose lineage grew up engulfed in Howard County running, Tiamfook moved to the area from Massachusetts before her freshman season. However, she had already established herself as one of the best young distance runners, qualifying for the Junior Olympic Nationals in seventh grade.
"It was just the best experience of my life. I got to travel and see what sport I was good at, where it could really take me, and what I could become," Tiamfook said. "My family is a distance family. My sisters ran cross country, but I never thought that would be my sport. I [played] soccer for most of middle school, but every year toward Christmas time me and my family we would run together and I started picking up that I was pretty good at it."
As it turned out, Tiamfook stepped into one of the most established cross country programs in the state with legendary coach Earl Lauer then at the helm. It was a welcome surprise.
"It was completely unexpected that the school I would come to would have such an amazing cross country program," Tiamfook said. "At the beginning of the year they kind of told us that we were really good, but I didn't really know that we were exceptional. And having Lauer, he made a really big impact on me as an athlete from my freshman year. He kind of guided me and helped me keep levelheaded. Especially as a freshman to be with those top girls, you don't want to get too confident in yourself. You want to be able to stay humble and remember what your goals are."
After Lauer retired, Paul Hugus took over the Hawks' girls team in 2015 for Tiamfook's sophomore season and continued River Hill's success.
The Hawks have won three straight boys state titles during Hugus' tenure, while the girls have finished in the top three at the state meet in each of his first two seasons at the helm — third last year and second this fall.
"It was really unexpected, but because we had him around for the boys in the past years — he did a great job with the program. He took Lauer's lead and was able to take us where we've been. I mean with the guys, to even coach [three] state titles in a row is a huge deal," Tiamfook said. "Of course there's always a set bar when we come into this. Coach Lauer, he always said success is a choice and he mentions our former runners, people like Chris Heydrick, Alison Krein, [Elizabeth Oldhouser] — all those people decided to take success into their own hands and that is something that we have to decide every year for ourselves."
Heading into this season Tiamfook had her eyes set on individual titles at counties, regions and states, but most of all she wanted to lead her team to a better finish at the 3A state meet after what she called a disappointing end to the 2015 season.
"Some personal goals that I had for myself was that I just wanted to be better, I think," Tiamfook said. "After last year — it was just a hard year for all of us I think. We didn't meet the expectations that we wanted to meet. I know a lot of teams would say third place is a great thing to do, but for us that was not great, especially after we just came off a state championship. I just wanted to do everything I could to help my team be better and for us to perform better than we did."
Although River Hill fell 17 points short of capturing its second state championship in three years, Tiamfook was happy with the way the race played out and how the season ended overall.
"We were successful," she said. "We did exactly what we could do. Northern was just the better team, but we did what we could and we put up a fight, I think."
Tiamfook said running collegiately is an option for her, but for now she still has one more year to don the Hawks blue. She says there is plenty left to accomplish with River Hill dropping to the 2A classification with a new set of competition coming with it.
"Oh trust me, coach has already come down and talked to me about that," she said. "Next year we will be moving down to 2A and so we already tried to check out the competition and see who I would be competing with in terms of returning girls. I can't wait — I really want it."
There is also indoor and outdoor track and field coming up this winter and spring for Tiamfook, who is relishing the opportunity to earn more individual and team titles with the Hawks.
But win or lose, cross country or track, her family will be there waiting at the finish — or even maybe sprinting toward the end with her.
"I just would like to shout out my friends and family to be able to attend the meets and supporting me and giving me this opportunity," she added. "Especially my family for giving every aspect of their lives, the long car rides, the money to help me do this."
Also named to the all-county team are:
Alison Betler, Centennial
Postseason highlights: Placed sixth at the county championship meet (19:27.28). Finished sixth at the 3A East region championships (19:46.1) and crossed ninth at the 3A state meet (20:02.2).
Emily Beyer, Mt. Hebron
Postseason highlights: Placed second at the county championship meet (18:49.47). Finished second at the 3A East region championships (19:14.1) and sixth at the 3A state meet (19:20.3).
Owen Dannelly, River Hill
Postseason highlights: Placed third at the county championship meet (19:05.05). Finished third at the 3A East region championships (19:23.3) and 11th at the 3A state meet (20:15.7).
Courtney Mann, Howard
Postseason highlights: Placed fifth at the county championship meet (19:20.21). Finished third at the 4A North region championships (19:43.6) and eighth at the 4A state meet (19:41.3).
Cara Nardone, Glenelg
Postseason highlights: Placed fourth at the county championship meet (19:07.41). Finished sixth at the 3A East region championships and 31st at the 3A state meet (21:01.6).
Molly Bingham, Marriotts Ridge
Postseason highlights: Placed 11th at the county championship meet (19:55.13). Finished fifth at the 2A West region championships (20:40) and 11th at the 2A state meet (20:34).
Cora Blount, Centennial
Postseason highlights: Placed ninth at the county championship meet (19:39.59). Finished eighth at the 3A East region championships and 18th at the 3A state meet (20:39.1).
Annabel Cortez, Reservoir
Postseason highlights: Placed seventh at the county championship meet (19:33.8). Finished seventh at the 3A East region championships (19:59.1) and 13th at the 3A state meet (20:18).
Raaya Khleif, River Hill
Postseason highlights: Placed 12th at the county championships (19:57.8). Finished 11th at the 3A East region championships (20:27.9) and 22nd at the 3A state meet (20:45.9).
Alexa Matthews, River Hill
Postseason highlights: Placed 10th at the county championships (19:54.09). Finished 10th at the 3A East region championships (20:24.4) and 26th at the 3A state meet (20:49.5).
Kara Taylor, Centennial