DECATUR — After Veronica Hein finished in 43rd place two years ago at the Class 1A cross country state meet, Todd Vohland pulled her aside and gave her a simple message.
He told her that as a freshman in 2009, Ivy Handley finished with the exact same 18 minutes, 42 second time as Hein finished.
Handley was crucial to the Bulldogs' success during her four years for the Bulldogs — she was part of three of St. Teresa's four straight state titles — and ended her senior year with a state championship in 2012.
The 43rd-place finish wasn't exactly what Hein had hoped for as a freshman. She followed it up with an eighth-place finish last year as a sophomore with an 18:02 time.
“When you can run that kind of time as a freshman, you feel pretty good about it and you hope they can make another step," said Vohland, St. Teresa's cross country coach. "She made a big step last year."
Vohland has been telling Hein she needs to consider herself one of the top small-school runners in the state, and her state medal as a sophomore was just the right confidence boost.
“That was an amazing experience," said Hein, now a junior. "It was really great to be up there with all of those amazing runners. I was hoping I would place last year and I was super excited that I did.
“It was a wake-up call for me that I can achieve a lot more than I think I can."
Hein isn't ready to anoint herself as one of the state's top small-school runners, but she's in the conversation.
Only one runner who finished ahead of her in last season's state meet has graduated. The rest return in a loaded class.
But being in a conversation with those runners, and being friends with them, helps normalize the rather dense statement that she is among the state's best.
“It’s a little early on in the season to see who’s standing where," Hein said. "I’m hoping I can get there."
At times during last spring's track season, Hein was irritated with her results. She had been putting in the work, but not always getting the finishes she had hoped.
Hein was fighting an uphill battle. As far back as last Christmas, Vohland noticed that Hein was growing — and growing. She was adjusting to getting taller during the track season, in which she finished 15th in the 3,200-meter run at the state meet in Charleston.
“A lot of the times the frustration will come after the meet," Hein said of track season. "I thought to myself, ‘I’ve been working hard, it’s not anything that I’m doing wrong. I need to keep working to my goal because there’s really nothing I can do and I have to work with it.’”
Now, three inches taller, Hein can look back at those track struggles and realize they played a big role in her development.
"It was hard to adjust to it, especially during track season," Hein said. "I kind of adjusted with my legs and my arms. It kind of helped me in the end."
Adapting to her new height, combined with the confidence of a top-10 finish in cross country last year, has Hein off and running. She finished second at the HCA Fall Season Cross Country Classic on Saturday.
“The way she finished the season last year is obviously a great spring board," Vohland said. "She's now more adjusted to the height. We’re hoping for a great fall. We’ll know in a few weeks, but I like the way she’s been practicing."
Hein is also growing out of some of the pre-race jitters she previously had.
Some of that is experience as a runner, but some of it has to do with how Hein spends her time off the course.
She's in the drama club at St. Teresa. Performing in front of a crowd? No sweat.
Over the summer on a Spanish immersion trip in Costa Rice, Hein and her older brother, Alex, recorded a song — "Someday" by Alkii — which is on Spotify.
Those experiences carry over to cross country. She's relaxed at practice, often singing during workouts, and calm before meets.
The work she's put into her craft will lead to the payoff — which Hein hopes is a top-five finish at state. Or higher.