Throughout the course of her record-breaking season, Staples sophomore Hannah DeBalsi had an extra gear in reserve, waiting to be shifted into in order to break the 10-minute mark in the 2-mile run.
All of the stars aligned on Saturday at the Brooks PR Invitational, a meet that featured most of the premier runners in the country. DeBalsi smashed past the 10-minute barrier and narrowly missed out on a special win as her and Bethan Knights (Irvine, Calif.) battled it out in an epic final lap showdown.
Knights won the race with a time of 9:53.53, while DeBalsi crossed the finish line in 9:55.05 to set a new personal best. The event was held at Renton Memorial Stadium in Renton, Wash.
DeBalsi's time was the fastest ever run by a high school runner from Connecticut in the 2-mile.
"I was really excited," DeBalsi said. "My goal all year was to break 10 minutes and I was able to do it with room to spare."
The race went right according to plan, according to assistant coach Malcolm Watson.
"(The plan was) to do exactly what Hannah did," Watson said. "We knew (Knights) was going to go out blazing in the first mile and she didn't disappoint. The plan was to hopefully hang in that chase pack and get a quick and easy mile. As soon as that pace slowed, (DeBalsi) was supposed to make her move and she popped right out."
Knights, the US No. 1 entering the race, was the clear favorite and nearly led from wire-to-wire before DeBalsi made a late charge.
Knights exploded out of the starting blocks and immediately established a substantial lead. DeBalsi lay in the weeds early on, settling in a pack that was fighting for second. During the middle laps, DeBalsi slowly moved into second position with Knights in sight.
At about the mile-and-a-half mark, DeBalsi began to make up the about 60 meter distance between her and Knights. As the final lap began, DeBalsi made her intentions clear and the two ran neck-and-neck for the first quarter of a lap before DeBalsi moved around Knights and temporarily held a narrow lead.
Knights made another charge over the final half lap and passed DeBalsi. Knights pulled away from DeBalsi over the final 40 meters to seal the win. Despite getting out-kicked by Knights, DeBalsi showed improvement in that area.
"Her kicks have been improved (throughout the season)," Watson said. "There was definitely more zip to her legs; more speed today."
The pair finished more than 10 seconds ahead of third place Stephanie Jenks, of Marion, Iowa (10:06.54).
DeBalsi ran mile splits of 5:01 and 4:54.
Being just one amongst a crowd of outstanding runners helped DeBalsi, who is not used to flying under the radar.
"It helped me because I didn't have to meet anyone's expectations and I could prove people wrong," DeBalsi said. "I like racing when I set high expectations for myself and others don't."
DeBalsi ran a 10:09.08 in winning the 2-mile title at outdoor nationals June 15.
"Both of them are kind of different happiness," said DeBalsi, referring to setting a personal best versus winning the race. "I haven't reflected (on the season) yet, but I'm sure I will."
The race officially concluded a sensational sophomore season that included record-breaking performances and a trio of successes at the national meets. DeBalsi finished second at cross country nationals in December, likely the only field as competitive as the one on Saturday. DeBalsi also finished fourth at indoor nationals in March despite a collision with another runner.
"I am constantly aware of how special of an athlete she is," Watson said. "You always have to keep everything in perspective; sometimes I don't think Hannah does."