By Chris Welch
Buckhorn High School cross country coach Bryan Campbell chuckles when he thinks about the conversation he had with a college cross country coach about Buckhorn’s outstanding cross country runner, Keira Larson.
It was last year … when she was an eighth grader.
“I was at an indoor meet,” Campbell recalled. “This college coach (we’ll leave out his school to avoid embarrassment) expressed some interest in Keira.” ‘Is she a senior?’ he asked. I said, ‘No, she’s just an eighth grader.’ I think he wanted to get her contact info, but after that he just said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t ask that question.’”
It really wasn’t the college coach’s fault. He wasn’t trying to break any NCAA rules regarding contacting high school athletes before their senior year. He just had no idea Keira was just an eighth grader at the time.
And, he’s not the only college coach who has been fooled.
Yep, she’s that good.
Larson, who has been running on Buckhorn’s varsity since seventh grade, has won four races this year with Buckhorn’s cross country team – including the Huntsville Metro Cross Country meet – and set a personal best in last year’s Sectional 5 Cross Country with a time of 19 minutes, 13 seconds. She’s helped Buckhorn qualify for the state cross country meet the last two years – running 19:33 last year, good for 17th place – and was favored to win this year’s sectional Oct. 31 and return to state Nov. 9. If she makes the top 15, Larson will make all-state, pretty rare for a freshman, Campbell said. She’s also a point guard on Buckhorn’s junior varsity team and an honor student.
“I’ve had several coaches ask about her,” Campbell said. “They ask, ‘Is she a senior,? and when I tell her she’s a freshman they’re shocked. Of course, they can’t talk to the athletes until they’re upper classmen.
“I think it’s just the way she runs,” Campbell said when asked what attracts the coaches’ attention. “She’s confident and likes to go out strong and hold the lead. She’s not scared. Her form is very fluid and economical and she’s not afraid to mix it up with them.”
Larson is only 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-3 by her estimation, but she is the equissential lean, mean running machine with textbook form, Campbell said.
“She’s like a NASCAR car,” Campbell says. “She’s got a light frame and a big engine … a big aerobic engine.
“She’s very coachable and really buys into the program. “She’s also an incredibly hard worker. She plays three sports – cross country, basketball and runs track – and she’s always practicing something. Running isn’t something she does just to do or get the T-shirt. She loves to compete and run.”
And where does Buckhorn’s little hot rod get that extra gear?
“I think I just have a voice in the back of my head,” Larson said. “”If I don’t pass a girl, I know I’m going to regret it later. Coach Campbell says ‘kick butt’ and I just go.’
“Several on my team ask me ‘How do you do it?’ and ‘How do you win races?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. It just happens.’ We’ve got good coaches, they train us well and that helps a lot.”
It also helps that Larson has been running since she was about 5 years old. That’s when she jumped into a 50-yard dash held at Jacksonville State University, where her dad was finishing up his Masters degree. Her mother, Libby, says she won the race and then got so startled by the crowd cheering she started crying.
“I knew I liked to run,” Larson said. “There were only five or six girls in the race and somebody behind me fell and started crying. I kept going and crossed the finish line, and when my mom hugged me and said ‘good job’ I burst into tears. I didn’t know what to expect.
“I think some people are born with it (running). I didn’t know I was born with it; I just liked it.”
Donny Barnes, who is on scholarship for Montevallo after being a standout runner at Buckhorn, is also Larson’s next-door neighbor. He sees great things for the young runner.
“She has a huge future ahead of her to do some spectacular things,” Barnes said. “She was only an eighth grader and was on the Top 25 list in the state for high school girls. She’s also an amazing girl personality-wise, too.”
Oddly enough, Campbell says Larson’s personality may be her best asset. He recalls this year’s Randolph Classic, one of the few meets she didn’t win, where she showed truly what she’s made of.
“She’s very goofy,” Campbell said, laughing. “She’s a silly kid and tries to be humorous, even if she has a bad day. Some kids have a pity party if they lose, but Keira will get back up and cheer on the rest.
“In the Randolph Classic she was battling for second place, and on the final water crossing she got stuck in the mud and had a hard time getting out. She was upset for a second, but 10 minutes later she was cheering on the others. She didn’t want to look down for the team. She’s that unselfish.”