CROWN POINT | Laicee Pierce's 18th birthday was supposed to be perfect.
She was supposed to celebrate it last June by winning a state championship or two in track. Instead, the Crown Point runner sat at the Indiana University track with a stress fracture in her lower right tibia and watched as girls she'd outrun all season walked away with medals around their necks.
"It was horrible," Pierce said. "I've had a lot of stuff like that happen to me over high school and it just makes you realize how much running means to you, and when it's gone, it's really hard."
Pierce, who finished third in the state cross country meet in 2009, missed seven weeks while her leg healed. She's back running with the Bulldogs, albeit not at the pace or rate she was this time last year. But that's OK to the top returning runner in Lake County.
After everything Pierce has gone through in high school, she's embracing that target.
"That's where I deserve to be, I feel like," Pierce said. "It's going to be hard for me at the beginning because I'm not where I'm supposed to be, but by the end of the season I'll be excited to get in with the best girls in the state and really compete."
Pierce's success last year was earned through a lot of sweat and tears. When she started her sophomore season for Crown Point coach Pattie Begley two years ago, Pierce weighed 97 pounds. During the next year she grew two inches and gained 27 pounds. The changes in her body caused Pierce to struggle mightily during most of her sophomore season and the start of her junior year. They slowed her physically and drained her mentally. She went from the Bulldogs' top runner to their second or third as a sophomore, and at one point she was fifth.
It took more than a year to grow into her new body and get used to running with more weight on her frame. Pierce, who is being recruited by Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Purdue and Syracuse, struggled at the onset of last season but peaked by October, and she hopes this season will play out similarly.
"Really, there's nowhere else for her to go," Begley said. "She has to rise to the challenge.
"We have to approach it differently. The goals at the beginning will be different. With her age and her raw talent alone she should be able to move pretty quickly back into racing form, just because she has several years behind her and knows what's expected of her. It's kinda a matter of just righting the ship a little bit."
While her teammates are running 35 miles per week, Pierce is running 20 and increasing her mileage by 10 percent per week.
A year after finishing third in the state while adjusting to a new body, Pierce is comfortable in her new self, which could make for a late birthday present.
"You can only go up from third," Pierce said. "I feel like before I wasn't as mentally strong as I am now. I feel when I go to the line I'm confident now. I look at all the workouts I've put behind me. I'm ready to go now. I feel if I stay confident and I don't freak out and don't choke now, I'll be good."