Being a freshman athlete isn’t easy.

Beside being at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, there’s the adjustment period from junior high to high school athletics that can take the entire year to overcome. And of course, the social changes and mental toll of being with the big kids can be enough to make first-year high schoolers stress and wish they were still in eighth grade.

But you wouldn’t know that if you’ve seen Hermiston freshman Katie Markwick run a race for the high school cross country team this year. In fact, you’d probably think she’s set to walk to “Pomp and Circumstance” in June. Thankfully for coach Jake Puzey, she won’t be wearing her cap and gown for three more years.

“She runs like a senior,” Puzey said after Markwick placed fourth at the OSAA state cross country meet Nov. 6 in Eugene. “She did a great job.”

Puzey said it’s Markwick’s determination and uninhibited focus that allows her to stay so cool and composed during races.

“She’s got tunnel vision,” he said. “She’s able to focus so much during race. Sometimes she’d have aches or pains, but as soon as she stepped to the line and the gun went off, it’s ‘I’m going to win this thing.’”

That is hard to do for any athlete, veteran or rookie, and really can show whether or not they can make the necessary strides in the training ground to keep improving. Competition is the fun part of athletics. Being able to show tthe hard work and dedication you’ve put in during practice is one of the most rewarding feelings, but mental fortitude is essential for making a good athlete a great one.

“It’s easy to freak out when things get tough,” Puzey said. “She didn’t falter once this season. She’s a gamer.”

At the Nike BorderClash, where Markwick competed Sunday as part of Team Oregon, race organizers recognize repeat qualifiers. Markwick has the chance of becoming a four-time qualifier for the event, which is done by placing in the top-12 in the 5A state meet.

“Every year there’s a couple people that have gone three years,” Puzey said. “A little more have gone two years, but only one or two per year have gone four times. She has the potential to do that.”

Markwick finished second in the Columbia River Conference meet this season, but ended up with a better finish than Hood River Valley’s Grace Viuhkola, the CRC champ, at the state meet.

But, in reality, most of Markwick’s early success has come as a surprise not only Puzey, but her parents, Rob and Angie. Earlier in the year, they planned a trip to Mexico during the weekend of the conference meet, not really knowing how well she would do her first year at the high school level. They may have been basking in the sun that weekend, but they were definitely still cheering for their daughter and the unexpected success she was having.

“We honestly didn’t know how well she’d do,” Rob said. “You always hope for maybe a little more than you think is possible.”

Katie’s parents also take a great approach to dealing with a high school athlete and try to leave the sport and all its pressures on the playing field.

“When the race is over, it’s over,” Rob said. “Sometimes we’ll talk about races a little bit, but not much.”

Rob said he thought the turning point to Katie’s season was the the Richland Three-Mile, where Katie worked hard in practice and wanted to try to run her best time of the year. She won the race.

“There she realized if she put the work in, she could do great things,” Rob said. “We saw sparks of greatness when she was in junior high, but she didn’t really have anyone to push her.”

With teammates like Jordyn Rohrman, Maggie Coleman and fellow freshman Kelli Niederwerfer, she’s got more than enough talent surrounding her to keep her wanting more. Plus, she’s pushing the other runners as well, making the team stronger that way, too.

In order to have this kind of year, Puzey said Markwick came in more than prepared, thanks to junior high volunteer coaches Jack Ringe, Jillian Malmberg and Nate Herman.

“They do an incredible job,” Puzey said. “I give them my workouts and what I do with the high school team, and they modify it to fit the junior high kids.”

Having the freshman come in to Puzey’s high school team and not “talking another language” to them is imperative to build a program. We all know that Hermiston’s program is a good one, too.

The best advice I was given growing up playing sports was by a baseball coach of mine. He told me to be proud of what I accomplished, but not to be satisfied.

That made no sense to me at the time — I was 13 — but I always remembered it. Now, it makes perfect sense, and those are the words of wisdom I’d pass along to not just Katie, but every high school athlete.

Billy would love to hear from you. Contact him at bgates@hermistonherald.com.

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