DANVILLE — The first telltale sign about Mercedes Ellliott’s athletic ability came years before she ever considered participating in sports.
“During the summer, I would go outside and play tag with the neighborhood kids,” Elliott said. “They always told me I was too fast for them to catch.”
Does it surprise anyone that little has changed since Elliott embarked on her running career at Danville High School and her “neighborhood” now encompasses all of East Central Illinois?
Well, actually, yes.
Vikings coach Todd Orvis watched Elliott in some summer workouts. He knew about her background, that she’d qualified for state, while at North Ridge Middle School, in the 1,600 meters in track. He was also aware she’d advanced to state in cross-country, but the distance for junior high students is 2 miles and a transition period is often required as girls adjust to the rigors of a 3-mile high school race.
“During the summer, I didn’t see much from her that gave me the indication that there was a ‘sleeping giant’ in our midst,” Orvis said.
“She came to the summer practices but ran with the other girls on the team. Kim Carter looked to be our top runner, by far, at that point.”
Perceptions changed quickly, about as fast as Elliott could run 3 miles.
In her fourth high school race, she was timed in 19 minutes, 8 seconds. The previous all-time school record for freshmen was nearly a minute slower, 20:07.
A week after that, Elliott was the individual winner in the 26-school Olney Invitational.
“Then I realized there might be something more to this girl,” Orvis said.
Frankly, Elliott wasn’t expecting such a breakthrough.
“Making the adjustment from 2 miles to 3 miles was very difficult,” Elliott said. “I had to adjust my techniques and the way I breathed. It’s
very different from running 2 miles.”
Her performance improved as the distance grew longer.
“Last year, I was running my 2 miles in 13 minutes,” Elliott said.
Her splits this year reflect a drastic change.
“Now, I’m running 11 minutes for my 2 miles,” she said.
Elliott’s impact on the Danville program didn’t stop with the freshman cross-country record. She took aim on the school record (19:02, held by Carter).
In the Class 2A state finals, when Elliott became the first female Viking freshman to earn all-state laurels, she ran 3 miles in 17:50. Until this fall, no Danville girl had ever run the distance under 19 minutes. Elliott became the first to go under 18 minutes.
If the story ends there, it’s an impressive one. Without question, Elliott was the choice to headline The News-Gazette’s girls’ All-Area team as Runner of the Year.
The beginning and the end tell an impressive tale. It’s what’s in the middle that makes it a fairy-tale like performance.
One of eight siblings (six of whom live at home), Elliott and her step-brother, Danville runner Austin Ewing, help their parents with a newspaper delivery route. It’s a ritual that requires early mornings six days a week.
“During the week, we are usually up and started by 4,” Elliott said. “On weekends, by 5. It just depends what time the papers come in.
“My dad does a bundle truck of about 1,000 papers. Then, we have a walk route of about 200 papers and a tube route of about 200 papers.”
Orvis learned the extent of the siblings’ involvement following an off-hand comment at the late-September Spartan Classic. The coach knew about the morning job, though he acknowledged, “I didn’t think much about it, but I admired both kids.”
After the race in St. Joseph, during a cool-down jog, Orvis heard Elliott say she was “tired and need to go home and rest.”
It was then Orvis realized what had been transpiring.
“I discovered that she and Austin were doing the paper routes on Saturday mornings, too,” he said. “She had done the paper route prior to every race up to that point.”
Elliott’s win at the Olney Invitational, plus the 19:08 freshman school record she clocked in her fourth meet, all came hours after she’d risen early and started working.
“Sadie is the epitome of hard work,” Orvis marveled.
Occasionally, the 14-year-old Elliott said, there’s not time to fit everything in.
“Sometimes, my mom and dad (Samantha and William Elliott) have to finish the paper route by themselves,” she said.
The time slot is not ideal, but the advantage is that it frees her up for extra-curricular activities when classes ends.
“Me and my brother do so many activities after school, so doing a paper route in the morning makes it easier for us to make money and still be able to do our activities after school,” Elliott said.
“Once we are finished (with the deliveries), we get dropped off at our bus stops and go to DHS,” Ewing said.
Originally, Elliott wasn’t a distance fan.
“I actually started out as a sprinter,” she said. “When I started track and I wanted to sprint, my coach had to convince me to do long distance.”
There’s no turning back now.
“I could never see myself going back to sprints,” said Elliott, who would like to major in neurology in college. “No ifs, ands or buts about that. Long distance suits me best. I’m able to run for a long period of time without getting worn out as easy as others.”
After what he saw in Elliott’s debut season, Orvis is looking forward to seeing what she can accomplish throughout the remainder of her prep career. Indoor track practice starts on Jan. 14.
“Mercedes is just a tough kid with a great deal of talent,” Orvis said. “With that combination, it’s a scary thought how good she can be. On top of it all, she’s a fantastic girl.”
Before settling into running, Elliott tried other sports. It wasn’t difficult to pick which ones to drop.
“I’m not very coordinated when it comes to a sport with a ball,” she said. “I picked running. All I needed was a pair of shoes and a will to work.”
Elliott’s will to work starts early each day and also requires a good pair of shoes.
Getting to know
Why she’s Female Cross-Country Runner of the Year: Not only broke Danville’s record for freshman runners in one of her first varsity races but also went on to set the school 3-mile record and ran the area’s fastest time this season (17:50); placed 22nd at state in Class 2A.
Season’s highlight: Won the regional by 15 seconds, won the sectional by eight seconds and was the highest area state placer in Class 2A, finishing 22nd. Each week of the postseason, she ran a quicker time.
A few of my favorite things: Geometry and biology ... “Mean Girls” ... The “Bring It On” series ... “Twilight” ... “Magic Mike” ... Jeff Dunham ... Avanti’s ... I want to drive a Mercedes Benz ... On my bucket list, to go sky diving, to go to Hawaii, to go bungee jumping and to go to the Olympics.
About Elliott: “She is very enthusiastic with her running. She worked hard during practices, which made it a breeze for her in the outcome of every finish at meets. I honestly didn’t know that she would have been able to pull off winning almost every meet.” — Danville runner Austin Ewing.