Emily Johnson's passion for running is equaled only by her passion for her Amherst Comets cross country team.
"It's going to be the best season," said Johnson, last year's Division I Lorain County MVP. "We have the best close group of girls. We're working towards making it to state this year."
You can be sure Johnson will be a driving force if they accomplish that goal. The junior made state last year, finishing 34th in 18:57. That's after taking fifth at districts and sixth at regionals.
The Amherst girls last made state in 2007. To get back this year will be tougher than ever.
Rocky River and Avon, formerly in Division II, have been added to the Division I district field in Elyria. Magnificat, Medina and Brunswick are already there. Making it even tougher, only four teams advance, down from six last year.
The Tiffin regional is also expected to be even more rugged with state qualifiers Toledo Notre Dame and Perrysburg expected to be there.
Johnson knows she's going to need to stay healthy and have another excellent season to help give the Comets a shot. Her best time last season was 18:51.27, when she finished 12th at the Tiffin regional.
"My goal this season is to break 18:20," Johnson said. "Our school record is 17:55 (Amy McKinley, 1992 state meet).
"I figured that if I took off 30 seconds this year and 30 seconds next year then I'd be able to break it."
Johnson finished fourth at last year's Southwestern Conference meet in 20:08.5. She ran 19:32.60 the next week to take fifth at districts. Her best time as a freshman was 20:30, which she ran in the open race at the Tiffin regional.
"I didn't think before last season that breaking 19 flat was tangible," Johnson said. "Just the fact that I can tell myself that I accomplished that feels amazing. To have Kasey Schuler with me last year was a blessing. It was something I needed. I don't think that I would have been able to do it without her. She pushed me and taught me how to push myself."
Last year wasn't all smooth sailing, however.
For one thing, Johnson grew 6 inches from her freshman to her sophomore year. Still, she handled the growth spurt just fine. The bigger challenge came in the spring when she was diagnosed with low blood iron during track season. Her Ferritin count, which tells how much iron is stored in your blood, was 6 when it should have been near 30.
"I didn't get tested until the end of track, but I knew the whole season that something was wrong," Johnson said. "I didn't know what. I felt fatigued much more than normal. My stride felt non-existent compared to before. My calves, thighs and hamstrings were much tighter than before. My hips were sore. It was a chain effect, (but) I didn't want to have blood drawn during the season."
Johnson has taken a liquid iron supplement during the summer to get her iron count back to the mid-20 range and is feeling much better. Initially, she was taking it twice a day, but now takes it only every other day.
"Emily is a very hard worker and is very conscientious about training," Amherst coach Terry Kemp said. "Being a part of a team is very important to her and that's reflected in how she approaches her races."
The iron supplement definitely helped turn things around. Johnson raced well July 16 at the Amherst Sandstone Classic 5K, winning the women's division in 19:28.4.
"Running is something I've always loved to do since I was very young," she said. "I used to race my older cousins, Jordan and Logan Kane. ... I would always beat them. They're boys so I always figured that I would run when I got older.
"I love to run. It not only makes you a better athlete, but it also makes you a better person. You learn how to work hard. You learn lessons like ... things aren't going to be easy but they'll be worth it."
One of Johnson's main role models was her grandmother, Linda Dane, who passed away from multiple sclerosis in the spring.
"My grandmother had never been able to walk since I've known her," Johnson said. "She was always a great inspiration. She was always so interested to hear about my running and what I did in my races."
Johnson started running in sixth grade as part of her school's running club. She continued in middle school, running cross country and track. While she also tried gymnastics and soccer, running has always been her first love.
"She's a very motivated kid," Kemp said. "Just a lot of superlatives. She's very hard worker who is very intense. She's thoughtful with her approach to racing. Now that her iron level is back to near the level it should be, she's looked great this summer.
"She's grown 7 inches since eighth grade and still's got so much potential for growth. She could be a tall, lanky kid - like a runner.
"Emily's been around (running) for awhile. She's been indoctrinated pretty well. Our best kids have always been taught by having your team around you is what helps you develop. That's what helped her last year with having runners like Kasey (Schuler) around her."
Contact Paul Heyse at 329-7135 or email@example.com.