The start of each new running season used to catch Northern's Deborah Green looking over her shoulder. Could a freshman phenom be there, poised to overtake her?
She knew it could happen, because she had done it. Three years ago, Green was the freshman racing past seniors to win the Baltimore City cross country championship in the fall and the 1,600-meter title in the spring.
Since then, she has won every city title in both events - four in cross country and three, so far, outdoors in the 1,600. Last fall, she became the first runner ever to win four straight city cross country titles. Next month, she could become the first to win all four 1,600 crowns.
Half-expecting someone to sneak up on her has kept her training hard.
"There's been more pressure every year," said Green, 17. "After what happened to some of the girls when I came in as a freshman, everybody kept thinking I'm going to get dethroned. I had to think about the new runners that were coming in, I had to think about the old runners who wanted to beat me and I had to think about myself; was I capable of winning a fourth championship?"
In cross country, of course, the answer was a history-making yes. The All-Metro second-teamer went on to finish third in the Class 4A state championships, a big jump from her 11th-place finish as a junior.
Unbeaten this season against city track and field competition, Green has certainly come a long way since that day in September 1998 when she lined up for her first cross country meet. Back then, she admitted, she didn't know much about running. She was simply following her sister Ashley, who was a year older and running at Northern.
"I saw what track had done for my sister: built her confidence and self esteem. It made her into a leader and not a follower, and also taught her discipline. Those were some of the things I was lacking at the time, so I turned to track."
In Green's junior year, her father, Aaron, also turned to track, stepping in as head girls cross country and track coach when the Vikings' previous coach departed.
A retired longshoreman, Aaron tried not to push, but certainly encouraged, his girls to participate in sports all along.
"I try to get them to see that track has a lot to do with life," said Aaron, who played lacrosse at City College. "The same way you approach life, you approach track - same type of commitment, same type of passion - and she's done those things."
Aaron tries hard to check his coaching hat at the door of their Leith Walk home and Deborah said he does a pretty good job of that.
"It works out well," she said, "because he treats me as an athlete, not like his daughter. On the track, this is all business. Then when we're off the track, we're back to family again."
Ashley, a freshman sprinter on scholarship at South Carolina State, said her dad has mellowed a bit.
"It's hard living with your coach. I'm not going to lie," said Ashley, 19. "We didn't get to go out much during our high school years, but I think he's gotten better. He's slacked off a little bit. He realizes we also need a social life."
Deborah Green, a 3.0 student who wants to be a psychologist, still puts training above her social life.
"No matter who's working with her, she works extremely hard," said Paul Holmes, Northern's athletic director. "She hasn't come close to reaching her potential. She's going to benefit from the competition she'll get in college, because she is dedicated to this sport."
That dedication keeps Green motivated despite the lack of local competition.
The difference between running against a weaker field and running against a strong field showed in the difference between her times at the city and state cross country championships.
She ran faster on the hilly Hereford course (20:15.79) in finishing third at the state championships than she did on the flat Herring Run Park course (21:34), where her closest competition in last fall's city finals lagged 76 seconds behind.
Last spring, Green won the 4A North Regional championship in the 800 by shaving eight seconds off her time from the previous year.
"I have to push myself. That's the main thing. I know when I go up for regionals and states; it's the Olympics of track. That's the only time I'm going to get that tough competition," said Green, who has received several college scholarship offers.