Former Payson High School cross country star Leighanne Haynes has run her way to collegiate All-American honors.
At the National Junior College Athletic Administration National Finals Nov. 9 at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, Haynes now a member of the Prescott Yavapai Roughriders team finished 13th in an exclusive field that included only regional qualifiers from around the country.
The NJCAA awards All-American honors to the top-15 finishers at the national meet.
Haynes’ road to stardom came as a surprise to many including her high school coach Chuck Hardt.
After receiving full scholarship offers last spring from Yavapai and Paradise Valley colleges, Haynes mulled over which to accept. Just before classes began in August, Haynes rejected both offers. She said she made the decision to give up a sport she had competed in for more than four years.
However, about two weeks into the school year, Haynes started regretting her decision.
“I think she was watching the (Yavapai) runners train and she kind of missed it,” Hardt said. “After all, running is a lifestyle for her.”
While mulling over her future, Haynes finally phoned her high school coach to ask for advice.
“I think she wanted to run but was not sure now to approach the coach,” Hardt said.
With encouragement from Hardt and her parents, Haynes decided to try out for the Roughrider team as a walk-on.
She admits the first few weeks of practice were rough mostly because she was out-of-shape.
“And in college, (the coaches) don’t baby you as much,” she said. “You are pretty much on your own. Stretching, conditioning and practicing are left up to you.”
Adjusting to college life, and living away from home for the first time in her life added to her new challenges.
By Labor Day, she had improved enough to become the Roughriders No. 5 runner.
Her mother, Michelle, believed a fifth-place slot on the team was not acceptable.
“That’s not good enough for Leighanne,” she said. “She began to work ever harder to become the No. 1 or 2 runner on the team.”
Fueled by her passion for the sport, Haynes gradually attained her goal of becoming a top two team member.
At the NJCAA regionals at Tempe Kiwanis Park, Haynes attained her goal of earning a berth in the national finals.
“I didn’t run my best, but I got (to nationals),” she said.
With the season now at an end, Haynes is again faced with decisions about her future. Her options include attending Yavapai for another season or transferring to a four-year school to continue her running career.
In Payson last weekend to visit her parents, Haynes said she was leaning toward returning to Yavapai. Her goal for next year is to earn a scholarship offer from a four-year university, and has set her sights on the University of California, Long Beach.
“There, or maybe somewhere else in California,” she said.
Academically, Haynes has not yet declared a major subject of study.
“I’m taking the undergraduate general studies, then I’ll decide,” she said.
No matter what lies ahead in her academic and athletic future, her break from cross country competition taught Haynes a valuable lesson.
“I now know how much (running) means ... it’s kind of a part (of me),” she said.