CROWN POINT | Kayla McGurk has a vivid memory of last year’s sectional championship win by the Crown Point girls cross country team.
It was a jubilant atmosphere at Lemon Lake County Park as the Bulldogs took their sixth in a streak of titles that now stands at seven.
McGurk, however, was just a part of the atmosphere and not a part of the action.
Relegated to No. 8 on the depth chart — one spot out of the varsity lineup for sectionals — shortly after a disagreement with her coach over where she was during a practice, McGurk wore a warm-up but never traversed the full course, just jogged the straightaways and cheered teammates.
A year later, McGurk was the recipient of those cheers as she crossed the finish line fourth, the first Bulldog across as usual, at Tuesday’s Crown Point Sectional.
She’s gone from an outsider to a front-runner, and the junior will use the self-doubt culled from the past to push her forward this postseason, which continues with the Crown Point Regional today.
“The people that pass me motivate me,” McGurk said. “I’m always doubting myself, and I feel that’s why I do well. I push myself to be at the top. Only after the race do I feel relieved, and I’m happy where I’m at.”
McGurk has already moved into the top 10 all-time 5,000-meter times at Crown Point. Since the beginning of the year, she’s dropped 1:15 off her best time. She ran the sectional course in 20:28.
In a season that’s brought plenty of frustration for the Bulldogs in the form of injuries, McGurk, despite bursitis in her hips, has remained a constant presence in the lineup.
“She’s had a phenomenal season,” first-year C.P. coach Adam Piaskowy said. “She’s still so new to racing at a higher level. As a cross country runner she’s just scratching the surface, and it’s fun as a coach to work with someone so open-minded and willing to run her hardest and still have a smile on her face.”
A cross country runner since sixth grade, McGurk made her first foray into track in the spring and had a breakout campaign under head track coach and cross country assistant Lindsay Hattendorf. McGurk got faster and faster in the 800 and went to state in the event and ran the leadoff leg of C.P.’s state-qualifying 3,200-meter relay team.
“Without Coach Hattendorf, without her motivation, I don’t think I’d be here,” McGurk said. “She took me under her wing.”
As a result of her increased burst, McGurk has been more focused on speed during cross country season. Sometimes she will diverge from the whole group routine at practice and do shorter, more intense mileage.
Thus far the formula has begotten success.
“She’s a typical high school girl,” Piaskowy said. “She does have an individual side to her, and she’s not afraid to do her own thing. If she’s not having fun out there, she’s not going to do well.”