Emily Dirkes, a senior at Mainland Regional High School, committed to NCAA Division I American University in Washington and will compete in women’s cross country and track and field.

Dirkes was the only senior on the Mustangs’ squad this year, and helped lead the team to a 29-4 record during her four years on varsity.

“I really liked the area,” Dirkes said of American’s location in the nation’s capital.

Dirkes said she originally thought she would prefer a school “near rolling hills, or something like that.”

“I got a special feeling when I visited American, and even though it was different from what I wanted, I fell in love with it,” she said. “After I met all the girls on the team, I could feel that they would be there to take care of me, and I was looking for that special connection. I felt it right off the bat with them.”

American’s women’s cross country team competes in the Patriot League, and is led by coach Sean Graham. Graham is in his second year at the helm of the program and was the assistant coach from 2009-11. Dirkes plans to major in Education and received an athletic scholarship.

She also made official visits to the College of Holy Cross (Massachusetts), West Chester University (Pennsylvania), Ithaca College (New York) and Loyola University of Maryland.

In 2017, Dirkes won the South Jersey Open Division II race in 19 minutes, 22.52 seconds as a junior. Shortly after her victory, the 18-year-old suffered a tiny stress fracture in her left tibia which stopped her from competing that year.

“I was forced to do swim team in the winter which was new for me,” explained Dirkes. “I got back with track after that and did well considering I didn’t get to train that winter. I did pretty well.”

In 2018 Dirkes found she had an issue with a growth plate in her right hip, adding another setback for her in her senior year.

“I wouldn’t call it an injury so much as an issue I had to take care of. It’s all sorted now, but it was demoralizing mentally at times. I compare myself season-to-season, and not seeing yourself improve is tough mentally. It’s not easy to get to your senior year and not have new personal records like everyone else.”

Despite her own personal setbacks Dirkes helped lead a young Mainland team.

“She served as our captain and embraced the role,” Mainland coach Brian Smith said. “We had a young team with four freshmen who were all contributors. Emily mentored them and was a positive influence for them. It was a struggle for her this year getting back into running shape, but she stuck with it for the team.”

Dirkes said her goal is to make an immediate impact with American and make the varsity team as a freshman in 2019.

“It’s going to be hard because there’s a lot of good runners on the team,” Dirkes said. “I also want to push more with track this season because after my injury last year I didn’t get to focus too much on distance, and speed races came more natural to me.”

Dirkes’ personal best in the 5k is 18:26. In traditional track events, she has bests of 2:25 in the 800 meter run, 5:20 in the 1,600, 11:20 in the 3,200 meter and 7:52 in the steeplechase.

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