Sparks, Miller meet in epic race today

The past, present and future of Nevada 4A girls cross country will collide for about 19 minutes this morning at the NIAA/U.S. Bank State Cross Country Championships set for Reed High School in Sparks. The 4A girls race at 11:30 a.m. is one of six being contested today to decide the 1A/2A, 3A, and 4A individual and team champions.

The past is represented by Green Valley High School's Abby Miller, a three-time state champion who's looking to become the first four-time 4A champ in Nevada history.

The future is represented by Carson ninth-grader Shanna Sparks, who won the Northern 4A Zone title last week at Reed and looks to be Miller's heir apparent as the top female prep runner in the state.

As for the present it's anyone's guess as to whom will emerge victorious in today's highly touted race.

Because of her experience, Miller, who won the Southern Zone championship on Oct. 30 and was 1 minute, 50 seconds ahead of her nearest pursuer, is probably the favorite over the precocious Senator freshman. But Carson co-coach Mike Longero said he wouldn't be surprised if Sparks pushes Miller all the way to the finish line.

"Considering the way she's practiced recently, Shanna's ready," Longero said. "She's done her work.

"Abby had better have done her work, or Shanna will be right there."

Two days before state, Sparks, 14, remained remarkably calm.

"It's not that nerve-wracking, because the pressure's on Abby, not me," said Sparks, who also credited reading her Bible as a good way to avoid becoming nervous. "I'm doing this for fun."

Although it's true that Sparks burst upon the cross country scene just this fall, she's no stranger to running and important races. Introduced to the sport by her mother Penny, a former competitive runner herself, Shanna began competing for the Silver State Striders running club at the age of 9. Since then, she's appeared in five USATF national age-group cross country championships, with her best finish a 16th in the 13-14 youth division in '98.

"Each year I've taken it more seriously, and each year I've been more improved," Sparks said.

Sparks said there's a number of possible reasons why she's enjoyed success at the high school level while "just a freshman," including the fact she might have been blessed with good genetics.

"My mom and dad (Ray) are both good runners," said Sparks. "It's part natural ability and part not wanting to lose."

With her time of 19:39 last week, Sparks was only 22 seconds off the course record of 19:17 that Miller set in the 1997 state meet at Reed. Sparks anticipates both herself and Miller running at a 5:50 pace today, which would put both under the existing record.

"I'm ready," Sparks said with confidence. "If I don't wimp out, I know I can at least push her."

Sparks wouldn't mind putting a blemish on Miller's perfect state racing record if she can pull off the upset.

"If I do my best, and Abby does her best, then I won't feel sorry for her," Sparks said.

Sparks, who would like to attend either Stanford or Colorado upon graduation, said a side benefit to her and the Senator girls' success this season has been some additional attention for the cross country teams, which often feel under-publicized within an athletic program that includes a host of successful teams.

"It was kinda cool when the zone cross country results were the first things on the morning announcements (at school) and everyone actually listened," Sparks said.


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