O'FALLON — As a shy 14-year-old freshman four years ago, Sydney Neal joined the O'Fallon High School girls cross country program with realistic goals.
She didn't have any ideas of breaking records or winning a state title. Neal's goal that first fall in 2010 was to make the Panthers junior-varsity squad.
"I remember telling my mom that I really wanted to at least make the junior-varsity team because it meant that I would get to travel with and be around the varsity,'' Neal said. "I just wanted a chance to show what I could do.''
What Neal could do was run long distances -- fast. She proved it over and over again.
A two-time Class 3A Sectional champion, Neal ended her high school career last month at Detweiller Park in Peoria in glory when she became the fifth female runner in school history -- and the first since the 2000 season -- to earn a state medal when she placed 25th.
The lone class 3A state medal winner from southern Illinois, Neal has been selected as the Belleville News-Democrat Class 3A Runner of the Year. Neal shared the recognition with teammate Samantha Lapp in 2012.
Neal, although the model of consistency this fall, won just one race. But Neal was at her very best in the bigger event.
"I think Sydney has set a very good example for our younger girls that we want to work hard during the season and be at our very best for the two most important races of the year -- the sectional and state,'' Panthers coach Neil James said. "I mean you're talking about a girl who was our No. 18 runner as a freshman. But she just kept working, putting in the miles and training in the summer and has been one of the best runners in the state the last two years.
"Plus, she's a great kid, too. That makes it even better. Sydney will definitely be missed.''
Neal is working on choosing a college. Southeast Missouri State and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville have shown the most interest. But several other NCAA Division I programs are looking at the Panthers senior.
"I wouldn't mind going to college somewhere close to home. But I think it may be better for me to go away,'' Neal said. "I would like to do both track and field and cross country in college, but if its just cross country that's fine, too.
"I just want to go somewhere where I can be happy, get a great education and compete at a high level.''
Neal was at a high level again in 2013. O'Fallon's No. 1 runner at the Quincy Regional. She was even better on the always demanding 3-mile course at SIUE, site of the Edwardsville Sectional the following week.
Neal's time of 18 minutes 43 seconds was 11 seconds faster then Minooka freshman Ashley Tuff (18:54).
"It (SIUE) is a course we've run on a lot in the last four years and it's one of my favorites,'' Neal said. "I felt very comfortable that day.
The following week, Neal was on again. Competing in her final state cross country meet, Neal finished with a time of 17:34 to claim 25th place and the final state medal.
"I knew it was close to winning or not winning a medal. I just tried to go as hard as I cold in the end. It was just enough,'' Neal said. "To be able to win a medal as a senior in my last race -- that's pretty special.''
Also special was the relationship Neal had with her teammates, coach James and assistant Candace Caveny.
"We had some bad luck late in postseson and so we didn't do as well as a team as we had hoped, but we still had a great year,'' Neal said. "I owe a lot to coach James and coach Caveny. They've both taught me so much.''