Liberty's Maddie Hill Finally Earns Her GoldBy: Greg Hall / TW: @greghall24 / firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2019 Class 5 state champion in the girls 1600-meter race entered Liberty High School in 2015 as an aspiring volleyball player with a passing interest in soccer.
"(Coach Tim) Nixon and I had heard about Maddie Hill's track times at St. James Elementary," recalled Tim Fritson, the assistant cross country coach at Liberty from 2008-2018. "So, we approached her the summer before her freshman year and asked her to come out for the cross country team. She turned us down flat."
"I didn't know anything about cross country," Hill told me in a recent interview. "I played soccer when I was young and then volleyball the fall of my freshman year. I was never really a runner. I never thought about being a runner."
"Thanks, but no thanks," she told Fritson and Nixon. "She was very open in telling us that she thought racing on grass sounded crazy."
Following her inauspicious freshman year on Liberty's volleyball team, Hill was set to try out for the soccer team in the spring semester.
Pam Koch, Liberty's head girls track coach, had heard from a family friend that Hill had exhibited some track talent in elementary school.
"I was on the lookout for her and stopped her to talk one day during her freshman year," explained Koch. "I felt like I was having to convince her to come out for track. She said she was going to play soccer! I told her, 'You can't play soccer!'"
"We had some great sprinters but we needed some help in the distance races," said Koch. "I told Maddie she could be that someone who could help us win as a team."
Koch's message was much better received than the desperate pleas the fall before from Nixon and Fritson. Hill agreed to ditch her soccer dreams and give the track team a try.
Life can be boiled down to little more than an almost endless list of personal decisions. All those decisions we make result in the person we become - as well as the hardships, celebrations and memories we experience.
If Hill had chosen to follow her soccer heart, she very well may have become an All-State soccer player.
What we definitively know is that she would have missed out on one of the most storied cross country and track careers in Liberty High School history
"Pam Koch talked me into trying out for the track team in the spring of my freshman year," said Hill. "She made it sound fun. She explained to me how I could be part of a team and how I could have an impact on the team's success."
Note to the Liberty cross country program; consider enlisting Coach Koch as a recruiter.
All Hill did as a freshman on the track team is claim All-State honors by finishing sixth in the 800-meter race (2:16). Her soccer dreams died that afternoon on the smoldering track in Jefferson City.
Nixon and Fritson again approached her about running cross country as a sophomore.
"I let the coaches know my freshman year in track that I had no interest in running anything longer than 800 meters," said Hill.
For those not aware, a high school cross country race is 5,000 meters or 3.1 miles in length. It is also run on grass, mud and sometimes over a downed tree limb or a strategically placed bale of hay.
None of these points of interest regarding the sport of cross country made Nixon's and Fritson's job of coaxing the elusive volleyballer toward the great outdoors any easier.
When asked if Maddie expressed any interest in racing beyond 800 meters, Fritson replied, "None."
Nixon and Fritson though, considered Hill one of those rare, wildly talented runners who they could not allow to spend her high school years digging spikes or setting the same.
"Right up front we sat her down and told her we thought she could be one of the best distance runners who ever ran for Liberty High School," said Fritson.
"Okay," Hill finally acquiesced. "I'll see how this goes. I figured it would at least keep me in shape for track season."
To say Hill was a neophyte to the sport of cross country would be a slight to neophytes everywhere.
"I had never even seen a cross country meet," recalled Hill.
Liberty had a talented senior distance runner named Claire Reedy that year who was the ideal mentor for the could-have-been-volleyballer.
"When Maddie came out for cross country as a sophomore," recalled Fritson. "She had no idea what she was doing. Thank goodness for Claire Reedy! We told Maddie to just run with Claire. She was not allowed to leave her until the last 400 meters of the race. Claire was a blessing and provided a measure of comfort we otherwise would not have had."
Reedy went on to finish 16th that season at state and claim All-State honors.
Hill finished fifth in that same meet. A mere four places from winning a state title in her first state cross country meet at Oak Hill's Hough Park in Jefferson City, one of the most demanding state championship courses in the country. This ended any talk of Hill becoming a volleyball star for Liberty.
"That proved to me that maybe I was more than just an 800-meter runner," said Hill.
Embracing her life as a runner allowed Hill to get to know Coach Nixon as not only her coach but as a man she deeply respected.
"Nixon had a very calm nature about him," said Hill. "I loved that about him."
Nixon retired from teaching in 2011 but continued to coach Liberty's cross country teams with Fritson and Rob Marquardt.
"Nixon cared more about the person than the runner," added Hill.
As a sophomore during track season, Hill again claimed All-State honors when she finished sixth in the 800 (2:18) and third in the 1600 (5:05). Hill continued claiming All-State honors in every individual race she ran at the state meet.
Heading into the state cross country meet her junior year, Nixon and Fritson had a plan in place where they thought Hill could finish in the top three and maybe capture a state title if things broke their way.
"We really thought she had a chance to win a state title that year," said Fritson. "We knew the spotlight would be on [Blue Spring South's] Tori Findley and [Washington's] Mikayla Reed. Maddie had already defeated Mikayla that year and we thought if those two went out together too fast, Maddie might be able to reel them in with her finishing kick."
"That made me aware that iron levels are very important to distance runners," said Hill. "Especially female runners. I hit a wall that season and just felt weak and tired."
"It was a rough cross country season with a steep learning curve," recalled Hill. "I still struggle with iron deficiencies but I have it more under control now."
Then tragedy struck. Tim Nixon, her coach and mentor, suddenly died a few weeks following the state cross country meet. Nixon's death had a devastating effect on the Liberty School District as well as the running community across Missouri and much of the Midwest.
"It was the first time anyone close to me had passed away," said Hill. "It was all so sad."
Hill's parents bought her a headband that Christmas with the word "NIXON" emblazoned in bold text across it.
"Maybe you can honor Coach Nixon by wearing this headband when you run?" her parents told her.
Hill has rarely run another race for Liberty High without her personal tribute to her late coach upon her forehead.
Hill sought the medical help she needed to control her iron-poor blood and she was able to again have a great state track meet the spring of her junior year, finishing fifth in both the 800 (2:15) and 1600 (5:07).
Heading into her senior year, Hill was now the proud owner of eight All-State medals in her growing trophy chest. She was now well established as one of the best distance runners in Missouri.
Even better, now that Findley, the supremely talented four-time state champion from Blue Springs South, had graduated and was off to run at Mizzou, the door was now open for Maddie Jean Hill to claim what was rightfully hers - a state championship!
"I really never took distance training seriously until the summer before my senior year," admitted Hill.
The summer before her senior year, Maddie was more motivated than ever. Her tenth place finish at state as a junior still gnawed at her.
"I was motivated like I had never been motivated for cross country," she said. "I was strict on my training and taking my iron supplements. I hadn't always loved running but that summer I learned to appreciate the hard workouts. I learned to appreciate how confident the hard work made me feel."
But like many great running stories, Hill's best laid plans received a gust of wind in their face.
Hill attended a Nike running camp at Creighton the summer before her senior year. She roomed with McKenna Butler, a young runner from the deeply talented stable of nine-time state track champions, Lee's Summit West girls' team.
Butler, who became fast friends with Hill, casually mentioned that Lee's Summit West was getting a new girl who was transferring in from the track-happy state of Oregon. Nobody knew too much about the new girl, Ginger Murnieks, but the rumors were that she was good. How good was still anyone's guess.
"I heard some more talk about Ginger at the Tim Nixon Cross Country Invitational (at the start of her senior season)," said Hill. "But no one had really seen her race yet."
Murnieks dispelled any doubts about her talent when she won her first cross country race at Ray-Pec the following week against a deep field that included talent from both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the city. Murnieks then proceeded to win and win and win each time she raced.
Tori Findley may have graduated, but in her place the cruel gods of distance racing had placed a new formidable obstacle for Hill in the form of Murnieks.
Some competitors might have cursed their fate and checked out the volleyball roster. Hill is not some competitors.
"It was just a reminder to me to always expect the unexpected," shrugged Hill. "It was a reminder that winning a state championship is never going to come easy."
"Madelynn is the toughest competitor you will ever meet," said Liberty's girls' distance track coach, Aaron Hohn. "She has the heart of a champion."
The lofty goals Hill had laid out with Hohn prior to her senior season were to qualify for state in the 800, 1600 and 3200 - and win a state championship in cross country, on the track, or both.
Despite a terrific senior cross country campaign that saw Hill race to PRs and capture a scholarship to run for Big 12 powerhouse Iowa State, Hill finished third at the Missouri state meet behind state champion Murnieks and Blue Springs' talented Tessa Valdivia.
Finishing third at her final state cross country meet was disappointing. Hill had her iron levels tested after the state meet and they again proved to be low.
"Not as bad as before," she explained. "But still another reminder to take my supplements regularly."
"I felt like I was doing all the right things in my training and diet but I still wasn't hitting my goals. It was frustrating. I had set high goals - including winning a state championship - and my opportunities in cross country were now over."
"It stunk," admitted Hill. "But it helped me grow."
"There are so many great female runners here in the Kansas City area. Tori Findley was so fast. It is humbling to race the caliber of runners we face here each week in Missouri. It can be frustrating at times to race such great competition but it is also a positive. Having to race the great runners from strong programs like Lee's Summit West, Blue Springs South, Blue Springs, Ray-Pec, and so many more, it made me into the runner I am today."
"When I raced those great runners, I tried to stay confident and not get overly concerned. If they beat me, they beat me."
Coach Hohn and Hill went to work after cross country season formulating a plan to capture a state title on the track. With the goal of Hill qualifying in the three distance events, Hohn knew the training would be rigorous.
"Racing the 800 is totally different from racing the 1600 or the 3200," explained Hohn. "We tried to simulate in the workouts the build-up of lactic acid and threshold racing, similar to what she would be experiencing in these three events at state. I wanted to show her that even when tired, we can still run really fast."
When the state meet was switched to a one-day event at Battle High in Columbia due to the tornado damage in Jefferson City, the decision was made to scratch Hill from the 800 and concentrate on winning the 1600.
Hill's high school career was now down to one day and two events. Few gave Hill - or anyone - a chance to win the 3200 over Murnieks. Her best and only realistic chance at gold would come in the 1600. And even there Murnieks awaited with expectations of her own to take home gold in both distance events.
The first lap of the 1600 was pedestrian. The second lap was even slower.
"Everyone in the field was still packed tightly together as we finished the second lap," recalled Hill. "I was kind of boxed in the pack when I saw Ginger take off. I knew I needed to go with her and so I broke free and chased her. I settled in and ran behind her until there was about 300 meters to go."
Hohn had positioned himself just before the far turn, right at the 300-meter mark.
"A really well-coached athlete doesn't need a coach," said Hohn. "Madelynn was exactly where she was supposed to be if the race proved to be a slow one. We had discussed all the scenarios and she was executing the plan to perfection."
"Coming into the spring track season I felt very fit," said Hill. "In the past, I had been so nervous before my races. I barely thought about the race or anything because I was so nervous."
"This time I was more at ease. I knew I had trained hard and I trusted that my training would allow me to hold up under the pressure of the competition the state meet would present."
Leading up to the state series, Hohn had pushed her through the toughest training sessions of her running career. She took everything he asked of her and then took more. She knew she was ready for this final 300 meters.
"More than anything, I trusted myself," said Hill. "That was something I had never really done."
Hohn leaned against the fence at the 300-meter mark and watched Hill push herself past Murnieks. The only word that escaped his lips was a confident, "Yes!"
"I was hurting," admitted Hill. "I was sure she was hurting. It was hot, my legs screamed."
Hill knew she was chasing the best female distance runner in the state - one whom she had never bested.
"With 200 meters to go, I decided to test my training and kick," said Hill. "I told myself that pain is temporary. I kept repeating that as I hit the last curve hard and forced my legs to carry me outside and past her and into the lead. When I got in front of her, I just focused on the finish line."
Hill was reminded of the lesson she learned months before - it is never going to be easy to win a state championship.
"Ginger Murnieks is not going to not respond," said Hohn. "She is one of the most talented high school runners we have seen. Madelynn knows Ginger is a great runner and that she was going to have to earn a state title. Ginger was not going down without a fight."
With 200 meters to go, Hohn saw Hill's arms begin to pump and her cadence even out.
"I knew we were both in pain. I kept repeating to myself that pain is temporary and that if I was ever going to win a state title, I needed to give this last 100 meters everything I had. My legs started to feel weak but I forced myself to concentrate on the finish. I left everything I had out on that track."
"Madelynn has a finishing kick that is unlike any other high school runner," declared Hohn as he recalled the final 100 meters.
Hill broke the tape with 5:02.05 on the clock. Ginger took second in 5:04.47.
"I thought of all that training that I had put in over the past four years and all those hours," said Hill. It was all worth it. I know Nixon would be proud of me. I think I shed a tear, too."
"When I think back on it, I am glad Ginger was there to push me my senior season. She made me a better runner. I knew I could never take anything for granted."
"I don't think she has yet come to grips with how good she can be as a distance runner," marveled Fritson. "She has that rare closing speed you cannot teach."
"Iowa State is getting someone with some untapped ability at the higher distances," Fritson added. She will hate me for saying this, but I think she could be a phenomenal 5000-meter runner. She is about to find out just how valuable her speed is in those longer races."
Madelynn Jean Hill will be missed at Liberty.
"She built our culture up," Hohn said. "She has groomed a lot of kids and our program is better for it."
"I have seen a lot of studs come through the Liberty track program in my time here," Coach Koch stated flatly. "Maddie is definitely one of the most competitive as well as one of the sweetest."