Think back to your days in high school and all the jokes you may have heard or maybe even made about freshmen and sophomores. How often did they involve the word "maturity"?
OK, maybe lack of maturity.
But it is safe to say that Sehome sophomore Emily Pittis is mature way beyond her years - no joking.
How many other freshmen would describe winning their first individual Class 2A state championship as "bittersweet?"
Most would likely come out and say it was one of the best days of their lives, but not Pittis.
"Last year was kind of a strange situation," Pittis, now a sophomore, said in a phone interview. "It was bittersweet because it was so weird. On one hand, I was really excited about winning an individual state championship and doing better than I ever could have dreamed. On the other, I was disappointed for my team, because we fell short of our goal of winning a team championship."
As a sophomore, Pittis did everything she could to make sure there was absolutely no conflict in how she felt, as she not only repeated as individual state champion, but helped mentor a talented freshman class of runners that allowed the Mariners to run away with the team title and claim their sixth championship in seven years.
Not surprisingly, Pittis has been selected The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Girls' Cross Country Athlete of the Year. Sehome's co-coaches Mark Kerr and Kevin Ryan, who also guided the Sehome boys' team to a state title, were selected the Co-Coaches of the Year.
"Emily is not one who talks about the team just to give it lip service," Ryan said in a phone interview. "You can tell from talking to her that she really believes it. You watch her celebration last year compared to this year, and it was totally different. Last year, I think you saw it wasn't as important to her because the team didn't win. She felt pretty good about it for 30 minutes, until the team scores were announced. I think that's what makes her such a special runner - she's not just out there for herself, she's doing what's best for the team."
Fortunately, in a sport like cross country, those two aspects usually go hand-in-hand - the higher you finish individually, the less points the team gets.
And nobody finished much lower than Pittis in 2012.
She won Northwest Conference and 2A Northwest District titles for the first time in her career, as well as placing third at the South Whidbey Invitational and 14th at the Nike Pre-Nationals.
All of that despite wearing a target on her back as a returning state champion.
"I definitely felt the pressure of winning state," Pittis said. "I'm hard on myself with running. I probably put the target on my back more than anyone else. Last year, everything was new and I didn't have expectations."
Fortunately, Pittis had a large group of talented freshmen, led by Rebekah Oviatt, Zanna Sullivan and Dana Ringler, that were going through everything for the first time, and Pittis was able to answer questions and lead by example.
"I love our freshmen," Pittis said. "One of them is my best friend. As a team, I wanted to make sure we were as welcoming as we could be to everybody. I wanted to be there to answer any questions that they had. I remember how I felt the first time I ran at state or the first time I ran that course, and I was able to share that with them."
Though Pittis left the leadership duties to the upperclassmen, her advice definitely helped the freshmen succeed, as all three finished among the top 20 in their first trip to Pasco for the state meet.
And Pittis, of course, led the way with her repeat title, nearly matching her time from a year ago, in the process - 18 minutes, 17 seconds as a freshman vs. 18:17.7 as a sophomore.
Her time this year on a little bit slower course ended up being the seventh fastest run among all six girls' classifications that day.
But more importantly to her, her team won.
Not even a mention of bittersweet.
"It was the best day this year, so far," Pittis said. "I don't think there will be a better day this year. I couldn't ask for a better team, a better experience or better coaches. We did everything we wanted to do."
And Pittis did everything her coaches asked of her in 2012 as a returning state champion, as Kerr said she started working in the weight room and kept her intensity up in workouts.
"We always talk about development, and the key to that is being really consistent in the weight room and consistent in your form drills," Kerr said. "Emily is great at that. Her intensity in workouts is always there. If we set certain parameters for her to hit in workouts, she's great at bearing down and meeting those expectations."
With the level of maturity she's already displayed, there's little reason to expect that will change over the next two years.
But before you start looking up how many four-time individual state cross country champions there have been in state history, remember that, especially in girls' cross country, young runners are always able to come along and change the environment - kind of like Pittis did last year.
"We always try to look over the course of a career with our runners, and Emily has done great her first two years," Kerr said. "Now the goal is to keep building and take that next step as a junior. We know she's going to increase her mileage. We know she's going to increase her work in the weight room. Now our goal is to get her ready to compete at the next level."
In addition to becoming an even better runner, Pittis also has set her sights on becoming more of a leader on the team.
While she was a terrific mentor for younger runners to look up to this year, upperclassmen made most of the decisions about team building and what direction the team was going to take.
Next year, Pittis will not only be a role model, but also one of the more experienced runners on the team. And she can hardly wait.
"One of my other best friends, Abby Cybula, who is going to be a senior, we're already talking about it," Pittis said. "We've talked about leading the team a bunch - all the bonding stuff that we want to do. Thinking about the team aspect and being a captain and a leader, that's really exciting. I really want to help this team keep winning."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
THROUGH THE YEARS
The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Girls' Cross County Athlete of the Year winners:
2012: Emily Pittis, Sehome
2011: Emily Pittis, Sehome
2010: Brittany Gappa, Squalicum
2009: Mimi Krieger, Sehome
2008: Annie Moore, Sehome
2007: Bronwyn Crossman, Squalicum
2006: Bronwyn Crossman, Squalicum
2005: Bronwyn Crossman, Squalicum
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.