Damascus High School senior Allison Marella visited Shippensburg University last spring, and she quickly realized she wanted to attend the school and run cross country and track there.
There was only one problem.
She hadn't hit the times necessary to join the Shippensburg teams.
But thanks to Damascus' track and field team, Marella had not only the means to improve her times, but the mindset to do so.
“Track and field is more than a sport,” Marella said. “I think it makes me more of a well-rounded person. I think I rely on it more than just going out and running. I think it puts me in the right state of mind of everything. I think I'd be a totally different person without it.
“It clears my head. It makes me happier. It makes me able to set goals. I don't think I'd be able to achieve anything. If I just had school, I would be like, alright, go to school, come home. Now, I have goals in school, track and life.”
Right after her visit, she began working on her new goals.
First up was running a 3,200-meter race in under 12 minutes, which Marella did at the Montgomery County Outdoor Championships in May. Marella's celebration after that event has stuck with Damascus assistant coach Elrid Cason to this day.
“A mixture of laughing, jumping for joy as much as you can after a two mile and looking like she wanted to cry in happiness,” Cason said. “A mixture of all three of the emotions. It's what you want to see from a kid who's worked so hard to get what they're pushing for.”
Next up was running a cross country race in fewer than 19 minutes and 50 seconds, which Marella did at the Urbana Hawks Invitational in October.
To Damascus coach Jason Bozicevich, it's no surprise Marella has taken the necessary steps to make her goal of attending and running at Shippensburg a reality.
“She lives, eats and breathes it,” said Bozicevich, who has coached Marella since she was in sixth grader. “She goes to sleep thinking about running. She wakes up thinking about running. Her work ethic toward it, she's completely focused and driven. She's probably the most intense runner I've ever had.
“She's always had to work harder than everybody else, and it's paid off dividends the last two years. She's done everything 100 percent, and you have to sometimes get on her to ease up a little bit, let her body relax.”
Marella has also proven herself a team leader.
“She looks out for her teammates when they don't realize she's looking out for them,” Bozicevich said. “She'll come to me and tell me somebody's having a hard time on the team or somebody's worried about something. She's like a big sister on the team.”
When she goes to the next level, Marella will no longer be that veteran leader, but Bozicevich believes she'll adapt well to college cross country, which uses a 6-kilometer course rather than a 5-kilometer course.
“I think the 6k will fit her better than high school racing has,” said Bozicevich, who added the 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer runs on the track also will suit her. “She's built to go long.”
Marella plans to study physical therapy at Shippensburg.
“You don't see the same thing twice,” Marella said. “You work with different types of people.”
Lately, Marella has used a different type of strategy on the track.
She typically goes out hard to begin the 3,200-meter run, but at the Last Track to Philly meet in January, Bozicevich convinced her to start steadier and run harder in the second half of the race.
Marella finished in a personal-best 11 minutes and 46.75 seconds.
“I said, 'You see what happens when you race the second mile instead of the first mile?'” Bozicevich said. “And she got it.”
Marella executed the same plan at the 3A West Region meet and won the race in what Bozicevich called a “very conservative 12:04,” because that she was running other events. Marella also finished second in the 1,600-meter run and fourth in the 3,200-meter relay to qualify for the state meet in three races.
“She's got a lot more in the tank for the state meet,” Bozicevich said. “She's ready to run fast.”