Freshman Natalie Andrejchak didn't know what to expect when she joined the Jay M. Robinson cross country team.
But the 14-year-old surpassed her wildest expectations to quickly become one of the top runners in Cabarrus County and beyond.
"As a freshman, I wasn't expecting to contribute that much," said Andrejchak. "Coming in here and winning all these races, I kept thinking 'Is this really happening?' "
Andrejchak led her Bulldogs to a South Piedmont Conference title, winning the individual conference championship before following that up with the 3A Midwest regional title Oct. 30.
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"I was really surprised that I won," she said. "Everyone kept telling me that I could do it, but I never thought there was a chance this could happen."
Behind Andrejchak, Robinson's girls finished as runners-up at regionals and earned a spot at the Nov. 5 state championships.
Andrejchak has been running since only about a year and a half ago, when she started running track in middle school. She decided to pick up cross country to stay active as she entered high school and to be with her sister, Ashleigh, a sophomore on the team.
Andrejchak said she couldn't have been successful without the help of her sister and the rest of the close-knit cross country squad.
"It's been nice to have my teammates to help me out," she said. "We're like a family now."
Having learned the ropes from her older sister, Ashleigh, gave Natalie Andrejchak the motivation to push herself and get better.
"There was also a competitive edge there with the sibling rivalry," Natalie said.
Robinson cross country coach Justin Gutierrez knew the younger Andrejchak, having coached her sister last year. But he had no expectations as to how the freshman would handle the intense training or perform on the cross country course.
"I didn't know how fast she was at a 5K," he said last week as his team prepared for states. "To be honest, I still don't know how fast she is, because at this point she's run as fast as the group of girls she's competed with."
Andrejchak admits she was nervous about her first cross country meet, so she stayed by her sister's side for most of her first 5K race. She finished 35th at the Providence Cross Country Invitational with a time of 20:43
"But in my second race, I decided to lay it all down on the line to see what I could do," said Andrejchak.
That paid off. In the Cannon School Invitational she came in first out of 138 girls, shaving more than 10 seconds off her time. Her personal-best time would come the following week, on Sept. 17 at the Weddington Invitational, when she ran a 18:36 to finish second in the 104-girl race.
"Taking those two minutes off didn't mean that she necessarily got better," said Gutierrez. "She started to realize what it felt like to race."
The coach explained that aside from putting in the work this season, Andrejchak was successful because of her curiosity.
"Natalie is obviously not only naturally athletic, but she's also very disciplined. She's really big into learning the ins and outs of everything," said Gutierrez. "That's all you can ask that she's willing to become a student of the sport."
Andrejchak hopes to use her early success as motivation to improve the next few years.
"If this is what I can do, then what is it that I can do to get better?" she said.
Andrejchak, who plans to give track a try in the spring, hopes running will one day help her earn a college scholarship.
Gutierrez said the sky is the limit for the freshman, explaining that she can make a tremendous improvement as she continued to learn the intricacies of the sport.
"As she continues to develop, I can really see her taking off and getting even faster," said Gutierrez.
Andrejchak knows next year there will be a different dynamic, as she won't go under the radar having to defend her conference championship.
"Everybody's going to get better and come after me," she said. "It's kind of nerve-wracking."
This article went to print before the Nov. 5 cross country 3A state championships.