As a middle-school student, Madeleine Ankhelyi admired one of the nation's top distance runners, Alex Kosinski of Oak Ridge High School.
Kosinski won three Sac-Joaquin Section girls cross country titles, five section and two masters track and field championships and held a national 1,600-meter record before moving on to star at Oregon, where she is a senior.
"Around the eighth grade, I became aware of her and some of the amazing things she had done," Ankhelyi said. "I thought it was neat and a little inspiring that someone from the same area had been so successful."
Saturday at the CIF State Cross Country championships in Fresno, Ankhelyi has the opportunity to do what eluded Kosinski during her star-studded career: Win a state title.
The Vista del Lago senior enters the meet as the Division III girls favorite ranked ahead of four top runners from the massive Southern Section and already has built a reputation as one of the area's all-time best.
Ankhelyi will try to become just the area's fifth girls' state cross country champion and first since Laurynne Chetelat of Davis (now at Cal) won the D-I title in 2007 in a state meet section record of 17 minutes, 18 seconds on the 5,000-meter Woodward Park course.
Laguna Creek's Rachel Bryan (D-I) and Granite Bay's Caitlin Chock (D-II) were two-time state champions in 2002 and '03; and Folsom's Jamie Witt won the D-II race in 1998. (Kosinski finished fifth in 2004 and 2005 and second in 2006, all in D-II.)
"A runner like Madeleine comes along once in a coach's career," said Vista del Lago coach Robert Grove. "You never know what's going to happen in a state meet. But Madeleine handles big races really well, and she's prepared."
This will be Ankhelyi's fourth trip to the state finals. She placed 10th as a freshman, ninth as a sophomore and third in last year's D-III finals to since graduated Carrie Verdon of Campolindo of Moraga and Oakmont junior Karlie Garcia, who missed her senior season with an injury.
This season, Ankhelyi won her second D-III section title in three years and also placed first in the prestigious Stanford Invitational, running that 5K in 17:39. It also was at Stanford, as a junior, where she ran her career best of 17:18, finishing behind Verdon and Garcia.
Like Kosinski, Ankhelyi also is a standout in track.
With one season still to go, she already has two 1,600-meter masters championships and 3,200-meter section and masters titles to her credit.
And like Kosinski, she'll continue her running career in college, but on the East Coast.
Ankhelyi has verbally committed to Harvard.
"A lot of schools recruited her, but she only took recruiting trips to Vanderbilt and Harvard," Grove said.
Ankhelyi, who maintains a 4.1 grade-point average, thinks the Ivy League school can help fulfill her aspirations of becoming a veterinarian.
"I fell in love with the campus, with the coach and the team," she said. "But it was still a hard decision. I took my trip in September but didn't make up my mind until a couple of weeks ago."
With Ankhelyi and highly ranked junior Clare Carroll leading the way, Vista del Lago was rated among the top five D-III teams in the state for most of the season.
But the Eagles lost by two points to Del Oro in the D-III section finals, snapping their two-year run as section champions, and making Vista del Lago appear to be a long shot in the state team competition.
"Unfortunately, we've had a few injuries, and we're not as fit as we need to be at this point," Grove said. "But in some ways that takes the pressure off. And with a front-runner like Madeleine and a strong runner like Clare, who knows?"
Regardless of how she or her team finishes, Ankhelyi will relish the experience.
"It's bittersweet," she said. "(Fresno) is my favorite course, and it's an exciting time. State is always an amazing experience. So I feel lucky to have gone four years in a row and be with my friends. I'm going to miss it."