Danielle Leavitt made a very wise decision this fall. She left soccer to run cross country and already is reaping the benefits of that choice.
The Lacey Township High School sophomore won three major championships and ran an impressive personal best in her first year running cross county.
"It all makes me feel really proud," Leavitt said. "I never really had this feeling of self achievement before and it's all so rewarding."
Leavitt won the South Jersey Group III title in 18 minutes, 21 seconds. She won the Ocean County race in 18:05 and ran a personal best of 17:37 at Ocean County Park to win the Shore Conference Championships.
She was the first local girl to win the race since Southern Regional standout Jill Smith, who now runs for the University of Michigan, in 2008. Leavitt is the first girl from Lacey to win the title since Christy Planer in 2001.
At the state Group III Championships, she finished fourth (19:07) and went on to place 103rd overall (20:39) at the Meet of Champions.
For all her accomplishments, Leavitt is The Press Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
"I definitely didn't do it by myself," Leavitt said. "All my coaches and friends helped a lot. They saw that I had the potential and it was great to have so much support and find the sport that I was made for."
Leavitt didn't always know running was her sport.
Last fall she played soccer and then ran indoor track in the winter just to stay in shape. After a successful winter season, she decided to try out for track and field in the spring. After a successful 2011 spring season, she decided to try cross country as well.
"I started running just to stay in shape and have fun," Leavitt said. "I started to realize that I was getting more and more competitive in running and that I'd probably do better in running than soccer, and I love running so much I just decided to stick with it and do cross country."
Leavitt had been playing soccer for six years before she discovered her passion for running.
"It was like, 'I love running; this is what I want to do,' so it was a pretty easy decision for me," Leavitt said.
Yet cross country didn't come as naturally to Leavitt as all of that might suggest. It took her a little while to embrace her decision and the transition to long-distance running.
"The beginning was rough for me," Leavitt said. "I remember running three miles in soccer last year and I always finished around the top of the pack. Then coming into cross country I realized I was a little slower than I wanted."
It wasn't until Leavitt started practicing with the boys varsity cross country team that she began to see improvements in her distance running.
"I found that working out with people better than me pushes me a lot harder, so I work harder and then in the end I get better as a result," Leavitt said. "As the season got more competitive and training got harder, I definitely improved."
Lions cross country coach Chuck Edens said, "That's what we do all the time at Lacey. We put distance practice together and put like abilities together. She's our best girl and there's no one to push her, so we pair her up with the boys with like abilities."
As the season went on and the training continued, Leavitt knew she had made the right decision.
"I was never expecting to do this well," Leavitt said. "I was expecting to fall somewhere in the middle. I knew I had a good track season, but three miles is a lot different than one. I just went out each time hoping for the best and I feel so proud that I am actually excelling in cross country like I did in track."
One person expecte Leavitt to do well this season: Edens.
"Based on outdoor in the spring, we knew that she was ready for some big things," Edens said. "We knew she was a competitor and we knew if she worked hard she would perform well and I think she certainly surpassed everyone's expectations."
Leavitt led the Lions to their second Shore Conference B South title (they went 5-0). After such a successful initial season for Leavitt, both she and Edens are looking toward the future. Leavitt still has a long running career left.
"Cross country is different. Every course is different. And she is just learning how to run each one," Edens said. "This year was her learning process and next year we are looking for even better results. She's dedicated to the sport and her training. She has a strong will to succeed and it has shown throughout the season."
Leavitt said, "I hope to break my personal best next year and beat my own times from this year at each course."
She was only about 20 seconds shy of beating the Ocean County Park record.
"I'm not sure what I'll run next year (as far as times), especially since all the courses are different," she said. "I just want to continue to improve. I love that feeling of crossing the finish line and knowing you just ran your personal best. It gives you that great sense of achievement."
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