ATHLETE OF THE YEAR

Bailey Bird, so., Pocatello

Best time: 18:04.8

Pocatello cross country coach Shannon Whitmer likes to preach steady improvements, the long miles and tough workouts adding up over seasons and careers to produce big results.

With the success that she’s had at Poky, Whitmer doesn’t usually have a problem getting her point across, but if she did, she could just point at Bailey Bird’s page on athletic.net.

It would show that, two-and-a-half years ago, Bird ran the first race of her varsity career in 24:13.7, and finished her second race in 59th place. It would also show that, by the end of that freshman year, Bird had broken 19 minutes with a time of 18:50.1 to finish sixth at state.

The improvements didn’t stop in 2020. As a sophomore, Bird started the season running over 21 minutes at Soda Springs’ SHARC XC meet.

She didn’t win a race until the 1st of October, which was also the first time she broke not just 20, but 19 minutes by running an 18:50.5 at the Dani Bates Invitational. From then on, she was unstoppable, adding titles at the Pocatello city meet and 4A District 5 championships before blowing away her previous PR with an 18:04.8 to finish second behind Skyline’s Nelah Roberts at the 4A state championship meet.

“I’m really happy, but that was such a hard race. I’ve never ran that hard before. I was trying to keep up with everyone who was in front of me and they were going really fast,” Bird said after the race. “Everyone was cheering so I just tried really hard. I didn’t think I was going to get that time.”

Bird’s time at state was the second-fastest in all of 4A in 2020, behind only Roberts’ winning time at state.

It was the final item on an unimpeachable resume that made it easy to pick Bird as the 2020 All-Area Athlete of the Year for girls cross country.

Bird was the only local runner to break 19 minutes in the 2020 season, and did it twice. Her time at the state meet was sixth-fastest in the entire state. The next area runner was Bear Lake’s Elise Kelsey in 29th.

Bird’s worst finish in a race was fourth, at the early-season Cardinal Classic, and she finished on the podium in nine out of 10 races (three firsts, three seconds, three thirds).

“You want to see kids improve year to year,” Whitmer said. “She started her freshman year at 24 minutes. Even this year, she started a little tentative. ... She was a pretty shy freshman coming in, so this much competition is really new for her. This year she did the same thing and slowly picked it up, so she did an awesome job.”

FIRST TEAM

Elise Kelsey, jr., Bear Lake

Best time: 19:03.9

The lowdown: Kelsey was the star of a historic state title for Bear Lake, running 19:03.9 at the 2A state meet to finish second overall and lead the Bears as they snapped Soda Springs’ run of 14 straight championships. That was the second-fastest time in 2A all year, only beaten by state champ Jessica Duran of Wendell. With her twin sister Elli Kelsey, the two-time defending All-Area Athlete of the Year, limited by injuries, Elise was unstoppable in the final month of the season, running 19:45 or better in all five races she ran in October and finishing in the top three in all five. That included a 2A District 5 championship, followed a week later by the historic performance at state.

Aubrie Barzee, fr., West Side

Best time: 19:12.7

The lowdown: The definition of a freshman phenom, Barzee won four of the first five races in her high school career, finishing second in the other. That included twice beating All-Area Athlete of the Year Bailey Bird, making her the only local runner to do so in 2020. She fell back slightly to eighth at the Dani Bates Invite and fourth at the Bob Conley, but bounced back to run a blazing 19:12.7 — a PR and the fourth-fastest time in 2A all year — to win the Preston Invite. Barzee then closed the season strong, finishing second to Elise Kelsey at the district championships and fourth at state. With three years of eligibility left, Barzee has plenty of time to add to an already impressive list of results.

Angelie Scott, fr., Preston

Best time: 19:15.4

The lowdown: Another freshman sensation, Scott found another gear at the end of the season. She didn’t break 21 minutes in her first three races and didn’t get under 20 until there were just four meets left in the season, but those last four meets were something special. She ran under 20 minutes in all four, including a 19:15.4 at state that was the eighth-fastest time in 4A all season. She was Preston’s top runner as the Indians narrowly missed a state title, finishing with 67 points to Skyline’s 62.

McKinley Scott, jr., Preston

Best time: 19:33.0

The lowdown: McKinley Scott was even more consistent than her younger sister Angelie, finishing in the top 10 in seven out of the nine races she ran (and 11th and 12th in the other two). That included a win at the Tiger/Grizz Invitational in September, plus a second-place finish at the 4A District 5 championships in late October. Ten days after districts, Scott showed out at state, running 19:33.0 — the 12th-fastest time in 4A all year — and finishing 11th. That’s quite an improvement for a runner whose PR was 20:19 coming into the season, and Scott will have another year to build on those gains.

Emily Despain, fr., Blackfoot

Best time: 19:37.8

The lowdown: It was good year for local freshmen, and Despain was another example, running 19:37.8 at state to lead the Broncos. It was the 13th-fastest time in 4A, and represented a big leap forward for Despain at the end of her freshman year. Her previous season-best time was over a minute slower (20:41.8). Despain still won the season-opening Bronco Classic, and finished in the top seven in each of her five races leading up to state, including a third-place finish at the Tour de Bonneville.

SECOND TEAM

Maren Leffler, fr., Preston

Best time: 19:39.4

The lowdown: Leffler was another of the breakout freshmen in the area, finishing just behind Despain at state with a time of 19:39.4, 14th-fastest in 4A. That capped a year in which she steadily improved as the season went on. She broke 21 minutes for the first time with six races to go and stayed under that mark the rest of the way. A 19:57.7 and fourth-place finish at the 4A District 5 championships heralded her big performance at state. Leffler is the younger sister of Preston stars Edison, who made second-team All-Area on the boys side, and Dawson.

Hailey Renzello, fr., Pocatello

Best time: 19:46.0

The lowdown: Renzello ran just seven races in her first varsity season, but made plenty of impact nonetheless. She finished in the top six in her first five meets, including a fourth-place finish at the Pocatello city meet. A new PR at the 4A District 5 meet still saw her fall to ninth in that race, but Renzello came back with a 19:46.0, beating her previous PR by 30 seconds, to finish 15th at the 4A state meet. It was the 17th-fastest time in 4A all year.

Elly Jeppsen, fr., Preston

Best time: 19:50.3

The lowdown: Jeppsen, the younger sister of Preston’s first-team All-Area runner Sam Jeppsen, was plenty good herself in her freshman year. She only finished in the top 10 in two races, but was consistently under 21 minutes, breaking that mark in the last six races and flirting with the lower end of that range towards the end of the season. A 20:08.8 was good for sixth at the 4A District 5 championships, then she broke through with a 19:50.3 at the 4A state meet, good for a 16th-place finish and the 18th-fastest time in the classification all year.

Jenna Gaines, sr., Soda Springs

Best time: 19:58.3

The lowdown: Gaines was Soda Springs’ top runner as the Cardinals narrowly missed their 15th consecutive state title, running 19:58.3 to finish fifth at the 2A state meet. That was also the fifth-fastest time in 2A all season. After going back and forth with teammate Brynlee Simmons, Gaines was just slightly faster towards the end of the year, finishing third at the 1A/2A District 5 championships and then outsprinting Simmons by a second at the state meet.

Hailey Raymond, fr., Snake River

Best time: 20:01.5

The lowdown: Raymond came tantalizingly close to breaking 20 minutes in the final race of her freshman year, running 20:01.5 to finish fourth at the 3A state meet. That was also the fourth-fastest time in 3A. An inexperienced freshman who couldn’t break 22 minutes in her first two races of the year, Raymond finished in the top 10 in five of her final seven races, a stretch that included a 3A District 5 championship. Her performance at state led Snake River to a team runner-up finish.