LIBERTY CENTER — When Liberty Center junior Brittany Atkinson was in seventh grade, one of her heroes was a two-time Division III state girls cross country champion from Versailles named Tammy Berger.
Berger, who had placed sixth in the state in 2008, won the event the next two years while Atkinson watched those races with her father, Liberty Center coach Tim Atkinson.
In 2011, Brittany Atkinson, then a freshman, was the D-III state champion, running the 5,000-meter course in 18 minutes, 27.51 seconds, and leading her dad’s Tigers to a team championship that had eluded them by a mere two points a year earlier.
Berger — a senior in that race who is now running at Ohio State — placed fifth.
“Whenever I watched [Berger] run I thought, ‘I want to be up there running with her some day,’ ” Brittany said.
Heroes are again en vogue at Liberty Center, which repeated its state team title last year while Atkinson placed second, despite lowering her state-meet time to 18:06.67.
H-E-R-O-E-S is the acronym for the team’s theme this season.
For the record, “H” is for helpful, “E” for encouraging, “R” respectful, “O” outgoing, “E” enthusiastic, and “S” sportsmanship.
Themes are nice for a bit of extra motivation, but what will actually determine the Tigers’ fate this season, will be B-O-P-J-E-C-S, namely Brittany (Atkinson), Olivia (Kundo), Paige (Chamberlain), Jenna (Vollmar), Emma (Babcock), Cheryl (Davenport), and Sara (Knapp).
Their collective talent was on display last Saturday at the prestigious Tiffin Carnival.
“We have that opportunity again,” Tim Atkinson said of bidding for a third straight state team title. “First you have to get there. Once you do, it takes talent and it takes a little bit of luck. You have to have all cylinders running on that day.
“We’ve been real fortunate the last two years that that’s happened for us. Saturday [at Tiffin] was a prime example. Going into that meet I didn’t feel that we were performing like we were capable of. I knew we were very talented, but the girls had just not been putting it together. Saturday, they all came together, and we had some freshmen step up. That was the key.”
Liberty Center won the D-III team championship at Tiffin with 96 points, beating out runner-up Louisville Aquinas (130) and third-place Cincinnati Summit Country Day (133). Victory in that race, which included 46 teams and 302 runners, represented the first ever Tiffin Carnival title for the Tigers.
“I’ve been real fortunate in my short career at Liberty Center to have some really good athletes,” said Tim Atkinson, a former high school and college runner who has also coached at both levels. “It’s a small-school setting, and the community really supports our program quite a bit. It’s helped our kids to realize we’re just one big family.”
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Brittany Atkinson paced the group by winning the individual crown (18:32.77) at Tiffin.
“I’m very fortunate and blessed to be a part of this team,” Brittany Atkinson said. “These girls, I’d do anything for them, and I think they’d do anything for me, too.
“It makes the hard work all worth it. You run all summer in the heat and, when November comes, it’s nice to see all your hard work pay off.”
Freshman Vollmar (16th, 20:11.68), sophomore Kundo (18th, 20:14.07), senior Chamberlain (24th, 20:27.38), and freshman Emma Babcock (37th, 20:47.50) completed the team scoring at Tiffin. Davenport and Knapp were 58th and 63rd, respectively.
This finish may alter the perception of the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches, which had Liberty Center ranked No. 3 in its latest D-III state poll. Gates Mills Gilmour and Minster were rated Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
Some of that poll logic could be because the Tigers lost three-time All-Ohio runner Kelly Haubert to graduation. Haubert, the only senior on last year’s team, placed ninth individually in the 2012 state meet. She was 11th in 2011 and 23rd in 2010.
Brittany Atkinson, whose career personal record was an 18:06.37 at last year’s district meet, has goals of cracking 18 minutes soon and approaching the 17:30 range by season’s end.
Chamberlain, a two-time All-Ohio runner (15th 2012, 18th 2011), has had a slow start in 2013 after rehabbing from an Achilles injury.
“Paige has had a very successful career,” coach Atkinson said. “She’s been an All-Ohio runner in both track and cross country. She’s coming off an injury, but her times will be back down by the end of the season. She just hasn’t been able to train like she usually does.”
Chamberlain’s PR (19:00.68) came at state last year. As her senior year winds down, she is expected to approach that time again.
“Our coach has us do a peaking system,” Chamberlain said, “so when it comes down to bigger meets like districts and regionals and state, we run faster times.”
Can the Tigers three-peat?
“I think we have the talent to do it,” Chamberlain said. “It’ll just come down to what happens at the state meet.”
Kundo, whose PR was a 19:49 at this year’s Widewater Invitational in Liberty Center, ran a 19:50.54 to place 55th at state last year.
“One of the biggest keys for our team success is all the summer miles we put in,” Kundo said. “We all work towards the same goal all season long.”
All three freshman had their PRs at Tiffin last Saturday, as did Knapp.
“Jenna Vollmar has been having a fantastic season,” Tim Atkinson said. “Our upperclassmen have done a great job of mentoring her, getting her up there and training with them. She really stepped it up at Tiffin. The same can be said for Emma Babcock.”
While competing for Greenville High School near Dayton, Tim Atkinson was on a team that finished third in the 1983 Class AAA (big school) state meet as a senior. He placed 17th individually.
He later ran at both Anderson (Ind.) University and at Heidelberg University before becoming a teacher and coach. He has coached at Tiffin Columbian and Seneca East high schools and at Heidelberg before taking the Liberty Center post in 2008. By 2009 he had the Tigers qualifying for the state meet and placing 10th.
“Our philosophy is really to train as an individual,” Tim Atkinson said. “If you’re a first-year runner you’re not going to be running the same workout as a fourth or fifth-year runner.
“We use an individualized approach, where the kids are doing different types of mileage. We try to stress growth to our kids each year. I think we’ve been very successful in that our kids have gotten faster each year because of that philosophy.”