Female Athlete of the Week: Falcons’ Keller finishes strong in final XC race

Lexi Keller Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Central cross country coach Melissa Wright knew senior Lexi Keller didn’t have anything to lose in last Saturday’s Group 2A state meet at Great Meadow. So did Keller.

Racing in the final cross country event of her high school career, Keller ran freely without the usual burden that had typically accompanied her during her four-year career. By the time she was finished, Keller had earned her first all-state medal.

“I think it’s because I didn’t expect to do that well going into the race so I didn’t really have any expectations to fulfill, so there wasn’t that pressure that’s always there,” Keller said Monday. “I took it as it came, I guess.”

Keller, The Northern Virginia Daily’s Female Athlete of the Week for Nov. 8-14, finished 12th in the girls race (the top 15 earn all-state honors) in a time of 20:00. Not only was it by far her fastest time run at the Great Meadow course (her previous best in a state meet was 20:52 her freshman season), it was the best time run by a Central girl on the course, breaking the mark of 20:38 set by former teammate Bethany Neri last season.

Keller, who ran in the state meet all four years of her high school career, had never finished better than 62nd in a state race since the Virginia High School League switched to six classifications three years ago. She said her all-state performance was “definitely a surprise.”

Using that prior experience, Keller arrived at this past weekend’s race feeling well prepared. She focused on maintaining her normal pace instead of getting caught up in the fast start that most runners try to get, she said, while paying “special attention” to the hills, knowing how critical they would be to her success.

“It’s nice reflecting back on the previous years. I think that gives me an advantage because I know what’s coming and I’ve run it before, so I can expect (something) like the creek,” Keller said of the stream runners are forced to cross early in the second mile. “A lot of people don’t expect to run through water and I know that that’s there and I have to run through it, so it’s not a surprise.”

Wright, who kept a close eye on all of the Falcons’ runners during the race (Central’s girls placed seventh as a team), recalled seeing Keller in ninth place after the first mile.

“Then by the 2 mile she was number 13 and when I saw her at the hill I believe I counted she was number 16 going up. I would say at that point it’s not quite a mile but it’s more than a half a mile from there,” Wright said. “When she came down off that hill she was number 13 and I was going crazy. I was real excited. And I thought she had quite a distance to close in on the next position and I was surprised when I got over to the finish that she was able to do that.”

Keller said the final straight stretch – about 800 meters in length – was a particularly grueling part of the race.

“You can’t start sprinting like I would at any other race but I tried to pick it up a little bit but it seemed like my legs just weren’t moving, like I couldn’t lift them up anymore,” Keller said. “So I had to try to pump my arms to make my legs follow that motion.”

Keller’s performance was a successful end to a season in which she once again battled some discomfort due to an extended bout with tendinitis in her hip flexors, although she said the pain wasn’t as bad as it was a year ago. Keller, who said the injury never forced her to miss any time this fall, did some physical therapy early in the season to address the issue, and added more swimming over the summer as a cross-training exercise in order to lessen the strain on her joints.

“She came in well prepared,” Wright said. “She won the (Shenandoah County) meet (earlier this season), which was a really big day for her as well. She’s probably been one of the steadiest top runners we’ve ever had. She’s not gonna be always flashy, out front winning every race but she’s consistently up there in the top finishers at each race.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com