Presentation High School of San Jose cross-country coach Chris Cozort has one word to describe Melissa Grelli, his star runner: competitive.
"From day one, she's always been the fastest runner on the team," Cozort said. "She's competitive with me. She's no-holds-barred. It doesn't matter that I'm a 27-year-old guy. I ran in college as well."
Cozort's age and the fact he ran in college are mentioned only to point out that he's a tad faster than his pupil, but it doesn't matter to Grelli. She still runs like she can beat him. Sit and wait? That's for wimps.
"She doesn't care who you are and what you've done, she's going to be competitive," Cozort said.
Running against girls her own age, Grelli has had a lot of success in the three years since Cozort lured her out for track and field. Grelli won the Central Coast Section Division III cross-country title as a sophomore, took second in the race as a junior, and won the California Interscholastic Federation Division III title as a junior. In track, she has finished second in the past two CCS meets in the 3,200 meters and was seventh in the CIF championships as a sophomore, missing a medal by just one place.
Grelli had thought of herself as a soccer player entering high school. She had run track in eighth grade where she won the Santa Clara County championship in the 1,600 with a time of 5:38. But, Grelli figured she couldn't run in high school because she would be playing club soccer.
Enter Cozort. Many running coaches have bemoaned the fact that runners with outstanding talent are spending 12 months a year playing soccer when there are more NCAA scholarships available in track and cross-country than there are for soccer. Cozort also happened to be the freshman soccer coach at Presentation. One day he told his team to take a short run to warm up.
"The warm-up is three-quarters of a mile," Cozort said. "She's just way up front. She just takes off."
Grelli ended up coming out for track and finishing ninth at the CCS championships in the 1,600 in 5:19.45.
The following fall, Grelli had a decision to make -- club soccer or cross-country. She decided to do both and had even more success in cross- country. Late in the season, she dropped club soccer.
"I was on a premier soccer team," she said. "It was really hard with time.
I just couldn't do it. I liked racing better. Soccer started to get boring."
Winning medals, of course, is almost never boring. Grelli capped her season by winning the CCS Division III race in 17:31, 10 seconds ahead of Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco's Michelle Gallagher. A week later, she finished third in the CIF State Division III championship in 18:49.
"That was one of my biggest races," Grelli said of her finish at the CCS meet. "Everything just fit perfectly."
In the spring, she ran the 1,600 in 4:59.49 and took second in the CCS in the 3,200, dropping her personal-best by over 10 seconds in running a 10:36.68.
She finished seventh at the CIF championships in 10:53.08.
"My big breakthrough," Grelli said of the personal-best time. "It was a big jump."
As a junior, Grelli finished second, 15 seconds behind Gallagher at the CCS Division III meet. Then, at the CIF championships, she won Division III in 17:59, the fastest time of all divisions that day. In the spring, she lowered her personal record in the 1,600 to a school-record 4:57.60. She finished second again in the CCS championships in the 3,200 in 10:49.74. But an upper respiratory infection had taken hold and she finished 15th at the state meet in 11:02.76.
When she got better, Grelli continued to work on improving her running. She went to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista near San Diego for a week. Campers received instruction from some of the top Olympic and collegiate coaches in the country.
Cozort said Grelli is sometimes over-competitive and may have pushed herself too far at the camp. She's been suffering from a hip injury, although she appears to be healthy now.
"I get really motivated and sometimes it's a little too much," Grelli said. "I work through pain a lot. Sometimes I don't know when to back off. I need to listen to my body now."
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