Prize Recruit — Katelynne Hart (Michigan)

Katelynne Hart has shown estimable cross country skills to go with her track prowess. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

“IT WAS KIND OF A MESS,” Katelynne Hart (Glenbard West, Glen Ellyn, Illinois) says of one of her cross country meets last fall. “I don’t know what happened. I was running really well but there’s a creek you jump over and I wiped out in the creek.”

Then she got misdirected on the course. This was not the impression she wanted to make on the college recruiter who was watching. “Mike [McGuire] was there,” she says. “It was the one race he came to.”

It all worked out in the end. Hart won the race in a course record: “I was hoping for a little bit bigger of a margin, but all the things that happened kind of prevented me from doing that, but it still was a fun race.”

McGuire, the Michigan XC coach, didn’t hesitate to sign the prize recruit. “She just got misdirected,” he says. “Heck, I got lost when I was in high school.”

McGuire knows he signed a good one: “She’s got a great work ethic and plenty of God-given talent. She’ll contribute here far beyond what she does on the track.”

Hart has been heralded as perhaps the finest girls runner to come out of Illinois. She made herself the state’s fastest ever at the mile (4:39.57) and 2M (9:55.23+). Along the way she won four straight State XC crowns, and three straight in both the 1600 and 3200 (plus one at 800), with only the pandemic ruining her perfect streak.

Her ’20 season didn’t get very far, but she did break some new ground, running her first track 5000 in the Valentine’s meet at Boston U. She finished 9th in the pro/college field with an impressive 16:09.56. That put her No. 4 all-time indoors.

“That 5K was super fun,” she says. “I wanted to run it to see where I was because it was something I had never done before. My plan was to run it again at New Balance Indoor Nationals. After the Boston race I’d have more experience and kind of know how to pace it on the track.”

She followed up back home with a 2:12.20 in the 800 and two days later, a 4:45.84 for 1600. But before any of her bigger goals came to pass, the season—as it was for so many—was a wrap. For Hart it was an obvious disappointment, but she pivoted to focus on her future as a Wolverine. Training shared her attention with cooking as well as helping the family foster a dog.

Looking back on her prep days, she says the secret to her success was simple: “I have a great passion for running and that’s the first key thing. You have to obviously love and enjoy what you’re doing and I definitely feel that way about running.

“And then I’d say I had a really, really, really, good support system. I had a great coach [Paul Hass], really good team, great parents and a brother that all support me. Just the combination of those two things helped.”

A one-time gymnast and soccer player, Hart left other sports behind after her first season of high school cross. “Even in just the first month of practice, I loved my team. They’ve been successful for a lot of years and my coach definitely knew what he was doing and knew how to get girls to love the sport.”

One of the things that has marked Hart’s racing career is remarkable consistency. Not just a handful of fast times, but a steady drumbeat of them. “I love to race, that’s the first thing,” she explains. “The times are definitely the result of the support system. I would say I’m obviously competitive and I always wanted to keep improving and keep making sure my times were improving as well.”

A defining race for Hart came at Foot Locker her junior year. “I had NXN the week before. It didn’t go quite the way I had planned [16th place]. I put a lot of pressure on myself and that was something that I was working on towards the end of my career in high school, just knowing how to deal with expectations.

“After NXN I was down and thought maybe I wasn’t in the best shape. The next week at Foot Locker, I kind of just ran free, I guess, and took the lead right at the gun. I ended up taking 2nd by less than a second.

“I think too many people looked at it as kind of a bummer that I didn’t win, but to me, being able to come back from a such a tough race the week before was crucial to me. Just knowing how important it is to have confidence in yourself going into big races like that.”

Now, like so many former high school stars, Hart is training to be successful on the next stage, one that can be a daunting step up. “I just wanted to come here and prove myself and be surrounded by a bunch of girls that want to pick each other up and push each other,” she says. “That is something that is so exciting to me. We’re only going to get better.

“High school is great, but I couldn’t be more excited to open this chapter in my life.”

It’s a chapter that no one has much experience with. The cross country season for Big 10 schools is on hold. The indoor season is tentative in every sense of that word.

“Coach McGuire has said, ‘You know, we’re all in this together. It’s definitely uncharted territory for everyone in the world right now.’”

The plan, she continues, “It’s just staying consistent. Making the best decisions we can to keep each other healthy, and continuing to work hard for whenever there is a season. Staying tough and getting through it together.”

And the support system that Hart says was crucial in her college choice? “I can confirm that it is definitely everything I expected.”