Miller enjoys Nationals experience Thursday, December 9, 2010 7:06 AM EST By Justin Feil, The Packet Group

Julianna Miller would have liked to have had the Hillsborough High School girls cross country team join her for the Nike Cross Nationals on Saturday, and while she would have liked a faster time under smoother running conditions, she won’t forget her first trip.

”It was amazing,” said the Raiders senior. “It was a great experience.”

Miller had earned her spot among the nation’s best with a third-place finish at the Northeast Regionals the week before. The top-10 finish sent her to the nationals meet at Portland Meadows race track in Portland, Ore.

”I was just trying to enjoy the weekend and take it all in,” Miller said. “They definitely provide a lot of extra things to make it fun.”

Race conditions weren’t among the fun additions. On a windy day over the muddy course, Miller finished 76th in 20:20.5. Rachel Johnson of Plano, Texas ran 18:18.6 to finish first out of 199 girls. ”It was definitely the hardest conditions I’ve run in this year,” Miller said. “I’m not really used to that kind of mud. It was pretty extreme.”

Obstacle-type courses that include mud pits are growing increasingly popular among recreational weekend warriors, but Miller may not fully understand the appeal of a course that so dramatically slowed times. Johnson’s winning time was more than 30 seconds slower than last year’s winning time; the boys’ winning time was 50 seconds slower than last year.

”I’m definitely not used to running in the mud. It kind of took me off guard,” Miller said. “It was harder than I had imagined it. Every step I would take, I would slip and my legs would sink. I felt like I really couldn’t move my legs must faster than how they were going. When we weren’t in the mud, it felt normal.”

As normal as one can feel in the most talented and accomplished field of runners they’ve ever been in. Last year, Ashley Smolinka became the first Hillsborough runner to reach the Nike Cross Nationals, then enthralled her teammates with tales of the experience. The Raiders were just one spot from qualifying as a team out of regionals for the second straight year.

”After being so close last year with the team, we had kind of been hoping to try to get there as a team,” Miller said. “After everything that Ashley had to say about it, we were kind of striving for it.

”The girls, we were all kind of upset that we didn’t go as a team,” she added. “But next year, hopefully they can work towards it again.”

Making it as an individual put a stamp on Miller’s season, which has to be considered the best single season in Hillsborough history. She set the school record on almost every course that she ran this year.

”She worked very hard,” said Raiders head coach Rich Refi. “She’s made a steady progression through each season and through each year.”

A quiet leader by example for the Raiders, Miller helped to bring the girls team a second consecutive Meet of Champions victory. In every race this season, she set the pace for Hillsborough, a dramatic change from last year when Smolinka led the way. With Smolinka now a freshman runner at Syracuse University, Miller raised her running to a higher level.

”A lot of it was having more confidence in herself,” Refi said. “She mostly just runs for the team. She tries to do the best she can for the team.”

Her best helped to make not only a great season for the Raiders again, but also a season to remember for her. Reaching the national meet added to the luster of her season.

”Nike just put together an awesome program,” Miller said. “They were so accommodating for us and made it so much fun. I got to meet a lot of people from all over and got to meet awesome runners.”

Miller tried to soak in the atmosphere of the biggest race that she’s been to and not let the magnitude of the event bother her in her initial trip there.

”I’m not sure if going earlier would have helped,” she said. “It was fun to experience it. It was interesting running in the mud, and I was glad I got to experience it.”

Added Refi: “It was two years in a row that we got someone out to Oregon, which is not an easy achievement. She had a great season. I just thought it was a fitting end to a great season.” Miller is looking forward to some mud-free running in the winter track and field season. She will focus on the mile and two-mile for the Raiders.

”I’m just going to try to keep the same work ethic,” Miller said, “and just keep doing everything that we have been doing. And hopefully it will work out as well.”

Aside from a little less mud, it’s hard to imagine it working out much better. Miller’s final scholastic cross country meet came on the biggest stage possible to cap her year and her career.

”It was a nice way to end my season because it was kind of a fun meet,” she said. “Just making it there was an honor. I really wished that my team got to experience it with me. It would have been awesome having them there. They would have liked to experience it. It was a good way to end my season.”

It was also a good start to next year as Julianna Miller’s nationals trip gives the returning Raiders a carrot to chase.

”Every year is a new year,” Refi said. “Hopefully next year’s crew will be motivated to get out there.”