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Jennifer Owen: Carving a niche

West Ranch junior quietly helping establish cross country program

Posted: November 25, 2009 9:44 p.m.
Updated: November 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Jennifer Owen is becoming the face of West Ranch girls cross country. Her standout performances have helped take the Wildcats to the CIF State Cross Country Championship for the first time in the program's history.

 
Jennifer Owen doesn't think of herself as a leader.

She doesn't think cross country running is a major part of her life.

But don't think she doesn't take it seriously.

Better yet, just watch her at this weekend's CIF State Cross Country Championship.

That's where Owen and her West Ranch teammates will be going for the first time, and part of the reason they got that far is Owen's example.

Or something like that.

"That's what my coaches tell me," Owen says. "I don't say much. I just do what they say."

Quiet on the course and almost averse to the spotlight, Owen has had no choice but to deal with attention given her stellar performances this season.

She won the girls' 11th-grade race at the Seaside Invitational in early September with a time of 18 minutes, 0.63 seconds.

She was 10th overall at the Woodbridge Cross Country Invitational in late September with a time of 16:59.

In the first Foothill League meet this fall, she became the first non-Saugus runner to win a girls league race since the 2004 finals.

"I kind of shrug it off," she says, citing the fact the Saugus girls were conserving energy for a national meet that weekend. "I thought it was no big deal. There's always another race, always another day."

She had quite a day at last weekend's CIF-Southern Section Division II finals, finishing 25th overall and first among the Wildcats with a time of 18:27.

It was a bounce-back performance after a subpar race at the CIF-SS Div. II prelims.

"Her challenge is staying on tempo for all three miles," says West Ranch head coach Randy Smith. "When she's ready to run and stays on tempo, she's really hard to handle."

Owen was anything but on tempo when she joined the team as a freshman.

She admits one of the reasons she started running was to avoid physical education class.

It wasn't until Smith took over the following year that Owen began to realize her potential.

"No one really knew that there was all that talent in that little body until her sophomore year," Smith says. "I know there's a lot of improvement because she's just starting her upward curve."

Owen says that she and the team took a big step forward last year by running more than they had in their lives and becoming mentally tougher.

The Wildcats qualified for the CIF-SS Div. I finals in 2008 but missed the state meet in a loaded field.

Owen has been out front for West Ranch for most of this season, along with senior Bailey Miller and sophomore Ashley Welker.

So does that make her as a leader?

"Not really," Owen says. "I kind of look at the girls who are more experienced like Ashley and Bailey, and I watch how they run and take it from there."

Owen's quiet demeanor may suit her on the course, but not once she leaves it.

A self-described loudmouth, Owen says she's always laughing when she's not focused on running.

Smith describes her as "squirrely."

Her teammates appreciate the levity.

"Jen is a really random but funny person," says senior Marissa Yabko. "She always talks about whatever she feels like. She's just a crazy girl."

Owen says she's learned to have more fun with cross country as the season has progressed.

Earlier this fall, she stressed herself out.

"I felt like the weight of the world is on my shoulders for West Ranch," she says, "But now I realize it's not. The girls will always be there for me. I don't have to freak out."

In fact, according to Owen and Yabko, there hasn't been much fanfare at West Ranch regarding the girls cross country team.

"It's interesting, because no one expected a bunch of girls that are really tiny to be the ones that pave the way," Owen says. "Everyone talks about football, golf, all the boys sports. Then all of a sudden the girls are going to state in cross country and they're like, ‘Really?'"

That quiet demeanor, Owen says, suits the Wildcats.

In a high school sports environment dominated by football and basketball, West Ranch is making a name in cross country.

In a league where Saugus has been dominant the past four years, the West Ranch girls are carving out their own niche.

Owen is arguably the program's most visible figure.

Whether she wants to be or not.


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