NORTHFIELD -- When a coach challenges an athlete to work harder and be better than he or she has been recently, it can go one of two ways. The athlete can take the comments to heart, put in the work and seethe improvements. Or the athlete can be completely turned off from the sport.
Sydnee Gallup chose to take the challenge head-on on Saturday and it paid off. The Hoosac Valley sophomore broke out of her comfort zone and passed runner after runner all the way to a seventh-place finish at the Western Massachusetts Division II cross country meet at Northfield Recreation Center.
"The challenge was push yourself every single step, beat every single kid and see what happens," coach Ron Namislo said. "I think she learned a lot about herself [Saturday]. These kind of races are breakthrough races. They call them that for a reason."
Gallup has had bouts with success at points this season, finishing as fifth in the final race of the season at Mount Greylock on Oct. 19. It was her highest finish of the season, before that the highest she finished was seventh. The problem has been running with the same girls week after week. It's held her back.
Kalyn Alibozek became the face of the girls' team this season. But at last year's Western Mass. meet, Gallup was with her step for step. She finished one place and fewer than 2 seconds behind.
What it boiled down to was a lack of commitment over the summer for Gallup.
"That's what I try to explain to her," Namislo said. "That summer work, you got to do it. She doesn't."
Part of the inconsistency issue she's battled this season is she was still working herself into shape. While the top runners in the county duked it out to see who was best, Gallup was playing catchup.
"She's always been one of our better runners," Namislo said. "She came in in reasonable shape, got into good shape and now she's in running shape."
As her conditioning improved, so did her times. As a result, her confidence grew.
"I realized I was cutting good times," Gallup said. "So from then I just want to keep improving. I did it once, so I was like, ‘OK, I can do this.' "
After running with Alibozek at the end of 2011, she's almost caught back up. Her seventh-place finish was only four back and 31 seconds behind. It was plenty good enough to qualify her for Saturday's Massachusetts Division II State Championship, which is on the same Northfield course.
It was the challenge from Namislo last week that made the difference.
"I had some people in front of me," she said. "[The plan was] always try to get one person next time, just beat this person, beat that person. I just kept doing that."
Knowing how well she ran on Saturday, Gallup could hardly contain herself, never letting a big smile fade from her face. Could this be the sophomore's statement race? Where she shows everyone what she has? Where she shows she'll be in the conversation for the next two years?
"I hope so," she said. "I hope I keep improving."
Said Namislo: "She now knows I can run with pain and then still keep going. The hard thing to teach the kid is when that point is, and yet, you still got more inside."
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