Jamie Kempfer and Evan Stifel: NSAF Emerging Elites of the Week

This is the 11th Fall 2013 edition of our NSAF weekly feature on nationalscholastic.org: the Emerging Elites of the Week.  The New Balance Nationals Indoor and Outdoor meets have become known for the ever-expanding and improving competition in the divisions of the same name.  Similarly, the NSAF seeks to give weekly recognition to track and field and cross-country athletes reaching new and exciting competitive levels with their recent performances. This week we honor two impressive and surprising new champions from last weekend's action.

Photos from Kempfer family (Jamie) and John Klare (Evan).

Female – Jamie Kempfer, Festus HS Class of 2014, Festus MO

2nd, 18:42.10, NXN Midwest, Lavern Gibson CC, Terre Haute IN

After watching Festus (Mo.) senior Jamie Kempfer’s tough-as-nails runner-up finish in the NXN Midwest regional last weekend, it’s hard to believe that 12 months ago she was coming of a 20:04 for 12th place in her 3A state meet and had broken the 20-minute barrier exactly once in her prep XC career. 

As it turns out, Kempfer was an elite distance runner just waiting to happen, if she could just stay healthy, find the right balance of different types of training, and totally embrace her inner harrier.  She was actually more of a sprinter early on, and then when she went out for cross the first time in 2011, she was derailed by injury.  In 2012, she was able to race more, but her potential was still out there.  This past spring, though, she broke 11 in the 3,200 and began to emerge into the runner who opened this fall at 18:26, then 18:07.

There has also been the frequent opportunity to measure herself against one of the nation’s best.  Kempfer runs in the same class and district as US#6 (DyeStat) Taylor Werner, the Ste. Genevieve soph who is unbeaten in her Missouri career, having earned NXN and Foot Locker Finalist spots last year.  In that 2012 state meet, Kempfer was 1:45 behind Werner, but during four in-state matchups this fall, she worked the margin under 30 seconds, eventually taking 2nd at 3A state with her first sub-18 (17:59).  Last Saturday, however, just six seconds separated the Show-Me-State stars as Kempfer’s 18:42 in brutal conditions earned her the 2nd individual ticket to Portland.

A few thoughts from Jamie:

On what she thought she could do coming into NXN MW ... and what life’s been like this week since:  Honestly, I went into the race thinking I wouldn't even get top 10.  I knew there would be a lot of fast girls there, and I never would have imagined that I would make it to nationals, let alone finish second!  Ever since I crossed the finish line, I have felt like I am living in a dream.  It still feels so surreal.

On her rivalry with Taylor and whether the tough conditions or other factors helped her close the gap at NXN MW:  I am extremely fortunate to have an amazingly talented runner like Taylor to race against!  She pushes me every time we race and has helped me reach this level.  It has been a huge goal of mine to beat her in a race, but I always kinda figured that the chances of that happening were slim and none, so I’ve just tried to continue to close the gap between us every time that we raced.
The regional meet served as an eye opener for me.  It showed me that I am capable of so much more than I would have ever imagined and that my goal maybe isn't as far away as I had once thought. 
As for the conditions, I honestly love muddy, nasty races.  They are a lot of fun and are a nice switch up!  The wind, on the other hand, was not so fun.  Every runner had to deal with it, though, so we were all on an even playing field.  It all comes down to who is the toughest and who wants it the most!  And I definitely wanted it.

On getting started in running, and evolving into a distance and XC runner:  From participating in other sports while growing up (just about all of them), I knew I had some speed, so I joined track my 7th-grade year.  I went through middle school as a sprinter, and didn't start getting into longer distances until the summer after my freshman year. 
Between winning state in the 4x800 my freshman year and my coach heavily persuading me, I decided to give XC a try.  Unfortunately, I got two pelvic stress fractures in the beginning of August of my sophomore year, so I was out for a few months and never got to race XC that fall.  I also got another pelvic stress fracture during sophomore track, taking me out for most of that season, too.  So I went into my junior year very cautiously and it served more as a learning experience.  Last track season, we slowly amped up the intensity, and I was forced to run my first 3200.  I never would have guessed that it would end up being my best race (10:55 PR)! 

On the keys to improving so much this season:  I am very thankful to be competing at the level I am now, and more importantly to have my first season completely injury-free.  That’s been the key to my training, to be able to train hard for the whole summer and XC season. 
I only run four days a week to make sure I stay injury-free, so I do a ton of cross training.  The pool where I swim was being renovated for about a month at the beginning of the season, and I think that not being able to swim then played a big factor in why I didn't race as well then as I am now.  I also do a lot of strength training and I feel like it has made me a stronger runner. 
This year, I really started to fall in love with cross country.  I have an amazing team, both guys and girls, which helps push me every day and make my running extremely enjoyable.  I am really going to miss them next year!

On the Festus program and inspiration from some Festus alums:  I am incredibly blessed to be a part of the Festus XC and track team.  Our coach, Bryant Wright, cares as much about us as he does his kids.  That really helps everyone feel like a family, and we all run for each other.  Our program is very built up, and Coach Wright knows how to make average runners great, improving us both mentally and physically.  My running career has had a lot of ups and downs, and throughout everything Coach has stayed extremely patient and has never given up on me.
Ever since middle school, Alyssa Allison (Class of 2008, national standout holding most Festus distance records) has been a major inspiration.  Drew White (Class of 2012) is also a huge inspiration.  He showed me what dedication really is and how important it is.  I also can't forget about Taylor Werner!  (Beyond XC) I am eyeing her 3200 and 1600 records!  I am only 7 seconds off of the 3200; the 1600 will take a little more work, but I am willing to do whatever it takes!

On her goals for NXN Finals:  As of now, I do not have any set goals besides to run fast and race hard.  I want to go into it with more of a relaxed approach, because I usually compete better that way!  Closing the gap even further with Taylor would be nice, too.

Male – Evan Stifel, St. Xavier HS Class of 2014, Cincinnati OH

1st, 16:03.7, NXN Midwest, Lavern Gibson CC, Terre Haute IN

There haven’t been too many more surprising winners in national qualifying XC meets than Evan Stifel at the NXN Midwest regional last weekend.  But then there are also many who would say there haven’t been too many harriers more deserving and who, perhaps, knew that the St. Xavier (Cincinnati, Ohio) senior had this breakout within him.

Sure, Stifel benefitted from the fact that favored and previously unbeaten Illinois 3A champ Patrick Perrier couldn’t finish due to injury and that Missouri state meet record-setter Noah Kauppila was well off form.  But still, in a loaded field of most of the best runners from five states, and in brutally windy and swampy conditions, Stifel put on a breakaway move in the 3rd mile that no one could respond to.  Driving up the final hill, he certainly looked the part of champion – despite the fact that he’d only won one other major XC race his entire career.

Make no mistake, though, Stifel has been a might contributor to Coach Mike Dehring's program that has now produced back-to-back Ohio D1 titles and NXN Finals appearances.  He led St. X during the early part of his junior year as they began the drive to their 2012 successes, but inexplicably slumped late in the season with a 22nd at state (4th man) and 92nd at NXN Midwest (both 4th man) – though he rallied to be part of a strong 1-2-3 punch as St. X was 9th in Portland.  With just two returnees from that team – Stifel and Michael Hall – duplicating their 2012 endeavors seemed a tough challenge.  But they’ve been more than up to it and the aforementioned seniors have been consistent, with Stifel placing high in every race – including 5th at D1 state.

Last Saturday, though?  Unexpected, and very, very sweet.

A few thoughts from Evan:

On his take regarding the conditions going into NXN MW, and his individual goals to help get St. X back to Portland:  Conditions were anything but ideal, but they affect everyone so you just have to embrace them.  After talking with my coach a few days before the race, about how our top guy in 2012 had been around 30th, I thought I would've been happy with top 20.  My main goal had been top ten ... and I thought top 5 would be a very big stretch for me, because I knew the competition was going to be incredible. 
Had I thought about winning the whole thing?  Of course.  Who doesn't?  But I hadn't even planned on leading the race at any point.  I just wanted to stay as close to the top pack as possible and then finish with whatever I had left.  Coming in I knew I was going to need to have a great race for us to qualify as a team to NXN, but I had no idea winning was going to be my best.

On how the race unfolded and what he was thinking along the way:  I was almost surprised with how slow the start was.  Nobody wanted to lead and I don't blame them.  Due to the slow start I felt abnormally well after the first mile and I was around third at that point.  At this time, I was thinking, “Man, if I finish third in this race, I will be so happy.”
After the second turn, when we started heading back into the wind, we slowed down even more.  But eventually someone decided to go, so I figured why not go with him?  I was feeling great so I might as well take my chances.
Once we got to the third turn, and started to go uphill with the wind at our backs, I decided to take over.  I've always been more of a “push the pace” kind of runner, because if it comes down to a kick, I wouldn't be placing bets on myself.  I honestly didn't think I was going to win until about the last 100 meters.  I was in constant fear of someone passing me after that final turn and maybe that's why I had as strong a finish as I did.

On his feeling upon winning and whether the conditions played into his hands:  When I crossed I the line I was thinking that something terrible had happened to everyone else, like all of the other runners had been taken out by a tornado or something, because there is no way I should've won this race.  On the other hand, I was thinking, “Oh. My. Gosh.  I just had the race of my life and it came at a perfect time.”
I was also thinking about why I do this insane sport and inflict so much pain on myself every week.  But you know what?  Over the past two or three years, I have come to absolutely love the pain.  The thrill and the adrenaline rush just can't be replaced by anything. 
Surprisingly, I think the conditions actually did help me.  I've always had pretty good races in bad conditions ... but I'm not sure why.

On what happened during his relative struggles at state and NXN MW last year, and how motivated that left him for those races this year:  I'm not exactly sure what happened during my less-than-stellar performances at the 2012 state and NXN MW meets.  I had no excuses.  It may have been eating wrong or lack of focus, or any number of things, but I clearly did not compete to the best of my abilities. 
So all I could think about the week of state this year was how I was going to do everything in my power to race my race.  Sure enough, I had a great race there and obviously I couldn't be happier with my performance at NXN MW.  My motivation, however, came from wanting to get my team back out to Portland.  Only Michael and I returned from last year and I really wanted to share that experience not only with him again, but with the rest of my team who didn't get to go last year.

On St. Xaiver’s winning state and moving up a spot at NXN MW, despite having a team with just two returnees:  Honestly, at the end of last year I thought there was no way we were going to be able to come back again this year and be as good as we were.  Well, we did everything we did last year – but even better.  I wasn't confident we had a chance at winning state until after one of our bigger meets, the Tiffin Carnival.  The top three ranked teams in the state were there and we won by 55 points. 
At state, I wouldn't say we were completely confident that we were going to win, but we knew that we were the best team there and that if anyone was going to beat us it was going to be ourselves.  We had a great buildup and no injuries along the way. 
This year at NXN MW, we wanted to get rid of the whole at-large deal.  We didn't want to have to be chosen to go.  We wanted people to know that we ran our way there and deserved to be in Portland.  Getting 2nd place did exactly that.
To be going back to Portland is indescribable.  Most people don't even come close to experiencing something like this in their entire life and I'm about to go through it for the second time.  My team and I are incredibly blessed to have the people in our lives (coaches, family, teammates, and school faculty) that make this possible because without them, this sport doesn't exist for us.  I owe an incredible amount to them and I can't show my appreciation enough.

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