COLLEGE OF SOUTHERN IDAHO - Headliner Extra - November 24, 2022
On October 20, 2021, Liz Phillips, a senior at Bear River High at the time, lined up for her final high school region cross-country championship race at Utah State University. Going into the meet she was a heavy favorite to claim individual honors but as the race unfolded, so did her confidence and concentration. And while finishing in sixth place individually was not what she had in mind, she was happy to be a medalist, but she wanted more according to her own standards.
She regrouped the next day with former Bear River High cross-country team coaches Tyrell Neal and Dan Line and together they made plans to do better at state. A week later at the UHSAA 4A state championships she accomplished both with a personal best run with a time of 19:15 minutes and fifth place individually and earning first team All-State recognition.
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In the ensuing weeks, several colleges reached out to Phillips about running at the collegiate level. A chance to run near to home and at the junior college level seemed to be the best fit. After graduation, she had a summer to prepare to be on the women’s team at defending NJCAA champion College of Southern Idaho. Being in college requires a commitment and Liz set out to run like never before. Beginning in June just after high school ended, Phillips followed a regime of putting in at least 40 miles a week running, a big jump from what she had been doing in previous summers.
“When I started my summer training before coming to CSI, I noticed a big difference with the mileage compared to high school. I was putting in 40-mile weeks, which I had never done before. I think doing more miles is what has helped me so much,” Phillips said.
Even though she had a great summer of preparation she still faced the challenge of entering a successful program with a lot of competition right off the bat.
“The beginning of the season was a little rocky. I had to get used to a different coach and different training. I was number five on the team after the first race. I knew that I had room to improve. During workouts I made sure that I was consistent with my splits and that I stayed on pace. Another thing that helped me get into the top three on the team was staying mentally strong. I have struggled being positive during races in the past, so I decided to change that this season. I always tried to have a good outlook before and during my races. This included a lot of positive self-talk. I also focused on the basics: sleeping well, eating balanced meals, and drinking lots and lots of water,” she added.
Liz didn’t arrive at Bear River until her sophomore year and up to that point hadn’t even started running, let alone do any sports.
“Before attending Bear River High, I had never really planned on running in college. Running was more of a hobby for me. When I started running with Bear River's team, I knew that I could potentially run-in college. I had teammates throughout my high school years who truly pushed me and motivated me. Coach Neal, Coach Wynn and Coach Line were also a big help to me. They helped me to see my true potential and what I was capable of,” she said.
Several of her teammates were especially valuable to her development into a potential college athlete.
“Madi White and Shylee Kofoed were my teammates in high school. When I got to Bear River, Madi and Shylee welcomed me with open arms. These two girls hold a special place in my heart. They showed me what hard work and determination truly means. I don't think I would be where I am without them. They pushed me during workouts, distance runs, and races. They made me want to become better,” Phillips said.
“I could always count on her to push me and encourage me. These girls are one of the biggest reasons why I stuck with running and why I am now running in college,” she added.
The threesome of White, Kofoed and Phillips brought unprecedented success to the Lady Bears program including the top three times in school history (Phillips second all-time), two Cache Box titles, a region title which included being the first team to ever beat Ridgeline High at region as well as the fastest team times and best placing ever at state.
This success carried over to another amazing season this past fall at CSI for Phillips.
As a two-year junior college, CSI competes in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Last year they won their first ever women’s national championship. As it goes with two-year programs, there was some turnover and holes to fill in another promising squad. Additionally, CSI lost their national caliber coach to Missouri but picked up another great coach in Janae Richardson.
“Janae Richardson is an amazing coach. This is her first-year coaching at CSI and she has done amazing so far. She is always looking out for her athletes and truly cares about us. Throughout this season she has been a big motivator for me. Anytime I needed to talk to her, she was there. Like my past coaches, she saw potential in me and what I was capable of. Throughout the season she expressed the potential she saw and pushed me,” Phillips said.
Coach Richardson was able to help the squad and Liz pick up where they left off last season.
With CSI ranked first nationally all year, Phillips slowly moved up the team depth chart as she adjusted to a more strenuous training regime in college. One constant throughout the season that helped Liz excel was the same type of camaraderie on the team that she experienced in high school.
“I love my teammates here at CSI. There is such a light in each of them. We are such a tight knit group. I have only known these girls for three months, but I feel like I can tell them anything. We are always there to push and encourage each other. I would not be where I am without them. Throughout the season, our goal was to pack tight during races. We wanted to show the other teams what a real team looks like. We achieved our goal. We packed tight during every race. We also packed tight outside of races and running. We are always there for each other. I wouldn't want it any other way,” she said.
Combine her development in high school cross-country at Bear River High, increasing her summer preparation and mileage and then having a great coach and teammates in college, great things were possible. The CSI women went undefeated all season against junior colleges and even beat several larger university squads and Phillips kept moving up the depth chart including almost being the number one runner on the squad just weeks away from nationals.
That preparation, growth and confidence manifested itself at the final meet of the season at nationals where Phillips placed an outstanding 10th place in the nation, earning All-American honors and helping the CSI women easily secure their second straight national championship in cross-country.
For Phillips, it was a trip to remember.
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“Nationals this year was in Tallahassee, Florida, so it was warm and humid. The weather was a little intimidating at first, but we didn't let that stop us. Throughout the race, I tried to keep a positive mindset and thought about my team. My team is my biggest motivator. After I crossed the finish line, it felt unreal. I had finished as the 10th runner overall (18:55). My original goal was top 20. It felt so amazing to be top 10 alongside two of my other teammates. When they announced that CSI had just won, so many emotions came over me. We worked so hard this season and it finally paid off. All seven of us started crying and hugging. It was a moment I will never forget,” Phillips recalled.
Phillips’ high school coach Tyrell Neal reflected on what a great young person and athlete she was while at Bear River High.
“The very first difficult practice we had the summer of her sophomore year, we knew she could be special. From there, she kept proving that right. Liz has been able to develop her talents in distance running by being committed to her team, coaches and training. She has been very successful at running because of her commitment. However, she has not let running cloud her perspective. She has let running be a tool to help her develop her personality, loyalty, and grit and now she competes with the best runners in the nation,” Neal said.
“As a runner in high school, she was patient with herself, overcame injury and challenges and excelled--all while bringing her team with her. That perseverance has paid off and now she is an All-American and national champion. We are so happy for her and proud of her,” he added.
Phillips is taking a break but not for too long. Indoor track looms in a month and then blends right into the outdoor season.
“I am not completely sure on what I will be running for track this year. The 1500m and 5k will probably be a couple of the events that I will try out. I would like to go to nationals in at least one event and hopefully place top five,” she said.
Phillips will return next fall as the number three ranked freshman and overall women’s runner in the NJCAA. A top five finish or better at the national meet next year might open the door for her to continue two more years at the next level.
“I would love to continue running after CSI. I am planning on finishing my schooling at a university. Hopefully I can make a good reputation for myself in my next couple of years at CSI and be able to go D1,” Phillips said.
Photos courtesy of National Junior College Athletic Association