Winneconne, Wis. -- It may seem meteoric, but make no mistake.
Kaitlyn Johnson's rise to the ranks of the elite NCAA Division III women's cross country athletes has been anything but a fluke.
"It hasn't been something that's happened overnight," University of Lynchburg head cross country coach Jake Reed said. "We saw it all track season."
Sure, Johnson is the reigning Old Dominion Athletic Conference champion in the 10,000-meter run.
But it's still hard to ignore what a difference a year's made for the sophomore from Spotsylvania, Va., who was named the ODAC's women's runner of the year Thursday.
Johnson finished 76th a season ago at the South/Southeast regional meet; last weekend, she finished third and earned a trip to nationals, the first Hornet woman to qualify for the ultimate meet since 2010.
She and the 279 other competitors will line up on the 6k course starting line at 11:15 a.m. Central time (12:15 p.m. Eastern) at Winneconne's Lake Breeze Golf Club.
Two Lynchburg men -- senior Tristan Lucy-Speidel (Fort Valley, Va.) and freshman Max Sparks (Canton, Conn.) -- will race in the 8k championship, which will follow the women's race. Sparks was also honored by the ODAC Thursday as the league's male co-rookie of the year.
"It's all training," Johnson said of the vast improvement. "I think anybody who runs here and runs for Coach Jake will tell you that."
In high school, she continued, she didn't have the same structure to her training. Her everyday 30-minute runs ramped up to 65 minutes or more upon her arrival to Lakeside Drive. That training and the confidence that came with it flipped a switch in Johnson she never knew was there.
"It's not like I go onto the line like, 'I'm the best runner here. I'm going to crush this,'" she said. "A lot of it is consistency in attitude.
"This time last year, and in high school, I never would have imagined where I am now," Johnson continued. "Obviously the coaches here have unlocked a level of talent I never knew I had. There's just so much that they've done for me to get me here. It's just hard to conceptualize."
She's been Lynchburg's top runner at all six meets this season, battling through muddy conditions nearly every race. October 13, she became the first Lynchburg woman to break 22 minutes in the 6k, clocking in at 21:54.9.
She ran a 22:29.8 two weeks later to place third in the ODAC meet, helping the Hornets women to a runner-up finish.
The following weekend, she again battled the muddy conditions at regionals in Mount Berry, Ga., cranking out a 22:37.08 to cement the individual national berth and all-region honors.
"It was one of those things where I had to fight for it, run hard, and just trust what I've done throughout the season," she said.
For Johnson's part, she said trust in her training and a level-headed outlook have made all the difference.
"I've always been disciplined in school and academics growing up," the straight-A student said. "But finding that discipline in running [has made the difference]."
And with the confidence that each race adds, Reed said there's a lot to be excited about with his star pupil's potential.
"She hasn't even touched her ceiling," the coach said. "She has no idea how good she is, and I don't think we've seen how good she can be."
And while just reaching the national meet checked one goal off the list, it's time, Johnson said, to set loftier aspirations.
"Obviously I want to be an All-American really bad," she said.
Lynchburg has never had an All-American finisher (top 40 at the national meet) in women's cross country.
Reed said Johnson could be the first.
"She has an outside shot of doing something special at nationals, but that's not the expectation," Reed said.
Visit Lynchburg athletics' home online, LynchburgSports.com, anytime for up-to-the-minute news on all Hornets sports and coverage from the Lynchburg Hornets Sports Network. Click here to sign up for email and text alerts from Lynchburg athletics.
2018 Old Dominion Athletic Conference Cross Country Superlatives
Men's Runner of the Year | Jamie Hiegel, BC
Women's Runner of the Year | Kaitlyn Johnson, LYN
Men's Coach of the Year | Brandon Spalding, W&L
Women's Coach of the Year | Michael Dager, W&L
Men's Co-Rookie of the Year | Max Sparks, LYN
Men's Co-Rookie of the Year | Skyler Lattuca, VWU
Women's Rookie of the Year | Sarah Hollen, W&L