Miller rose to the top in unorthodox season

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No matter where the Dixon cross country team ran this fall, Duchesses senior Jade Miller was always near the front of the pack.

Miller capped off a remarkable high school career with a fifth-place run at the Big Northern Conference meet, a runner-up finish at the Class 2A regional, a 10th-place run at sectional, and a 25th-place finish at what stood in as a replacement for the state meet.

Those runs propelled Miller to be named the Sauk Valley Media Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.

Throughout the years Miller has been running for the Duchesses, the Dixon cross country program has never shied away from seeking out top-notch races to run. Midseason trips to Detweiller Park or Galesburg or Sycamore or the Chicago suburbs have become the norm.

No matter who the Duchesses were running against, Miller would approach a meet by just trying to stay confident and trust in the training.

“We definitely have higher standards than most,” she said. “Me going into college now, it makes me feel comfortable since our program is much more advanced. I feel like my college transition will be much easier.”

Miller found herself on a younger roster this season, with her and fellow seniors Taylor Hills and Paige Stees joined by a group of six sophomores and five freshmen. One of those freshmen, Emma Smith, quickly rose up the ranks for the Duchesses, winning the Class 2A Kaneland Regional with Miller taking second, lifting Dixon to the regional title as a team.

“I’ve never seen anyone so committed to running,” Miller said. “She just wants to get better and better. Even though she’s a freshman, her goals are so high. She’s running with seniors and she’s right there with them. She’s going to be super-good when she gets older.”

But it wasn’t just Smith. Four of Dixon’s top eight runners this season were freshmen, giving the seniors the added role of mentors, trying to keep the younger runners positive during practices and calm during meets.

“It was so fun leading them,” Miller said. “Paige and I guiding them through the ways of high school and cross country. I think that will really carry over our culture that we showed them.”

When Miller was a freshman, that senior mentor was Leah Drengenberg, who helped her get over a lot of nerves coming into the program.

Getting used to the high expectations of the Dixon cross country team was something Miller struggled with at times her freshman year in 2017.

“I would have panic attacks, crying,” she said. “Even in our track workouts, not even at meets, I couldn’t breathe, I’d cry, I’d just get so nervous. I’d say it was more of an anxiety thing, but I worked it out throughout the years. I think by my sophomore year, I was over it. I gained some confidence in myself, and that definitely helped.”

Cross country wasn’t her initial plan. Running track in sixth grade, Miller signed up to be a sprinter, but coach Evan Thorpe pulled her out of the sprints and put her in the distance races. The distance events in the spring led to a try at cross country in the fall.

“I never really had a choice, but I actually fell in love with it through middle school, and I loved it in high school,” she said. “I’m glad he made that decision for me.”

Before that, Miller hadn’t really been in a sport. She had been a dancer.

“Getting into a sport was so fun, and I kind of had the drive for it,” she said. “The toughness of the sport, the mental toughness and physical toughness, really drew me to it.”

Dixon entered a 2020 season not knowing what to expect. At first there would be no sectional meet due to COVID-19, but sectionals later were added back to the calendar. The state meet was off. The trips to Peoria and the suburbs for bigger invitationals were off. Even at the big meets that did happen, the conference meet at Genoa-Kingston, the regional at Kaneland and the sectional at Lake Villa Lakes, there was a different format, with runners split into heats. Dixon even ended up running a lot of 5K races, as opposed to the usual array of 3-mile runs on a typical schedule, a difference of about 200 yards added to the race.

“I was just hoping to get as far as I could and improve myself the most,” Miller said. “I trained all of quarantine just hoping for a cross country season, and we were thankful to have one.”

At the sectional, Dixon placed fourth as a team, good enough to have sent the Duchesses to Peoria in a non-pandemic year.

It would have been Miller’s third state trip, after taking 25th as a sophomore and 15th as a junior.

A week after the sectional, Miller ran at a race put on by ShaZam Racing in Chillicothe, a race meant as a substitute for the canceled state meet. Facing top competition from around the state, she circled the course in 19:52.49 to take 25th.

“It was a fun experience,” she said. “ShaZam put on a great event. It was kind of sad going by myself, all alone, but I enjoyed it being my last race as a senior. My parents couldn’t go to the sectional since it was a no-spectator event, so it was nice having my parents be there and seeing my last race.”

Though it was her last cross country race as a Duchess, it may not be her last race. She is weighing the options for a college cross country career.