HILTON — It’s not easy keeping up with Shelby Herman and Ashley Jones. The longtime friends each play three sports at Hilton High School, consistently earn high grades and maintain their roles as altar servers at St. Leo’s Parish.
Think that’s a tough pace? Try going for a long jog with them.
Shelby and Ashley, who each stand 5 feet, 2 inches tall, towered over their competition last fall at the Section 5 Class AA cross-country championships. Competing in Class AA, the highest enrollment classification, Ashley placed first overall while Shelby finished second. Not too shabby considering both girls had just begun their freshman years.
The talented one-two punch helped Hilton take first place in sectional team scoring. Then, this past winter, Ashley opted to play basketball but Shelby excelled in indoor track, placing second in both the 1,500- and 3,000-meter runs at sectionals. More recently, the 15-year-olds have enjoyed further success for the Cadets in outdoor track, placing high in several distance-running events this spring as the Cadets won both the county meet and sectionals. Individually, Shelby won the 1,500 at counties and took second in that event at sectionals.
The big splash by Shelby and Ashley has surprised many area runners and coaches. Ashley, after having placed 10th in the cross-country sectionals as an eighth-grader, jumped to the top spot last fall. Incredibly, Shelby finished second even though it was her first season of cross-country competition. The girls attributed their surge to having attended summer running camps in 2004 after they were outdoor-track teammates.
“He always says we caught the bug,” Ashley said of their track and cross-country coach, Mike Szczepanik.
Despite their individual successes, the runners prefer talking about team accomplishments. For instance, Ashley recalled her initial reaction after being the first to cross the finish line at sectionals last November: “I just kind of turned around to see who was behind me. I was glad it was Shelby.”
Shelby, meanwhile, was satisfied with her second-place showing at cross-country sectionals — so long as the winner was from Hilton.
“I have no problem with somebody on my team finishing ahead of me,” she said.
“What they found is team success is much more fun than individual success,” Szczepanik observed.
Indeed, both runners said they relished the camaraderie of their talented cross-country squad. This included going to pasta parties and shouting such tunes as James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” on the team bus — not to mention the ultimate victory song, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” — while coming home from sectionals last November.
“Our bus rides can get pretty rowdy,” Shelby remarked.
These bonding moments help buoy spirits in what is often a grueling sport, where many a runner collapses or doubles over in exhaustion upon crossing the finish line.
“You’re in the trenches, and it almost unifies everyone into one common goal,” Szczepanik said.
“You have to be mentally tough, not think about the pain. If you think how much you’re in pain, it’s going to get worse,” Shelby said.
Because of these sacrifices, Ashley said the perception that “a lot of people don’t think of cross-country as a sport” — simply because there is no physical contact — in unfounded.
Even with the trials they endure, Shelby and Ashley said they thrive on the challenge of competing and training over steep hills and through mud, rain and wind.
“I like to run. It’s a lot of who I am, and what I do,” Ashley stated.
“I used to think I was some soccer fanatic. But now running is my sport,” Shelby said.
Yet running does not define their entire beings. Shelby and Ashley excel in their studies and also continue altar serving at St. Leo’s, as they have done for several years. In fact, Ashley assists with making up the altar-serving schedule.
How do they stay at the top of their games, both in athletics and the rest of their lives? Ashley said it comes down to a simple matter of self-discipline.
“You just have to set your priorities and do what needs to be done first,” she said.
Szczepanik added that for their ages, both young women have a high level of maturity.
“They keep everything in perspective. High-school athletics isn’t all about winning. It’s about being a good person, being disciplined, being successful. That transfers to having a good life,” he said.