By Brad Fauber
It sounds cliche, but comparing Ashton Davis' approach to the upcoming cross country season with her approach at this time last year truly is like comparing night and day.
As a junior last season, Davis was brand new to the high school cross country scene. Davis, who has run track for the Generals since her freshman season, was no stranger to competitive running, but only for short distances and nothing close to the three-plus miles she would run on a regular basis in cross country.
Still, Davis was willing to give it a shot, and the move worked out quite well for Davis and the rest of the Stonewall Jackson girls cross country team in 2012.
Davis would go on to finish second in the Shenandoah District meet before sneaking into the Group A race with a 15th place finish at the Region B event. Davis saved her best for last, finishing fourth in the state meet with a time of 20:02.
A year has passed since Davis made that tremendous leap from cross-country newcomer to a Group A top-five finisher, and things are much different for Davis as she gears up for her senior season with the Generals.
"Last year I didn't really know how to pace myself or really if I was capable of doing it," Davis said. "This year I know where I stand and how I can do, and I want to push myself to do that again."
Stonewall Jackson's success as a team this season will depend largely on the ability of Davis to replicate last season's accomplishments. The Generals' girls squad was forced to replace seven runners -- five graduates and two transfers -- from last season, leaving Davis as one of the few returning veterans and the lone senior with significant race experience.
Davis said emerging as the go-to leader for the Generals this season has been a mixed bag as the Generals prepare for their first meet on Sept. 11. On the one hand, Davis said she enjoys the responsibility because it is helping her develop leadership skills. But the senior also admits that it is difficult running with a group largely comprised of freshmen and sophomores who aren't quite at the same level physically as Davis, who said she has been racing with the boys in practice to help push herself even further.
"We're trying to get a good pack together, but I don't know since we lost almost all of our starting five from last year," Davis said. "We all were pretty close last year. This year I don't know if we're going to be as close, but I know that after me it's a freshman, Brandy Webb ... and then they're all pretty close after that."
Stonewall head coach Mary Clanahan understands the challenge that Davis faces this season, and Clanahan said it's important for her star runner to focus on her own personal goals, which will in turn help the rest of the team.
"Basically she is our sole senior now and she has to do for her in order for her to just continue forward," Clanahan said. "She has her goal, and her goal isn't necessarily what the team goal is because the team is so young. Basically the others are going to look to her as a role model as to what can be for them in the future."
Davis has certainly set a good example for her younger teammates so far this summer and into the first few weeks of practice. Davis said she trained hard over the summer in her individual workouts, focusing on shorter distances and hitting the weight room often.
"She trained really hard in the summer because she knows what she wants. We're actually having to back her off a little bit right now, because we don't want her to peak too soon," Clanahan said. "We've done a couple time trials and she really looks great right now."
Stonewall held its first time trial of fall practice on Monday, and Davis said she is already ahead of where she was at this point last season.
Clanahan was pleased with the performance of her entire group of girls on Monday, and said she was particularly impressed with the efforts of Webb and fellow freshman Aletse Tapia, two young runners who Clanahan said have worked to "give us some bright days."
"[Monday] when we did a time trial, we looked at what came in and I'm pulling up all times from years in the past -- I pulled up last year's and I was like, 'Hey, you guys are ahead of last year's girls.' That made them feel good," Clanahan said.
Stonewall opens its season on Sept. 11 in a meet against fellow Shenandoah District and Conference 35 member Page County. The Generals host their annual invitational on Sept. 28, and Clanahan said Stonewall will also team up with the Wounded Warrior Project to host a benefit walk and a 5K on Nov. 2.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD