With her constant smile and friendly demeanor before and after races, Leland junior Stephanie Barnett exudes the kind of sportsmanship that makes her cross-country coach proud.
But once the starting gun goes off, Barnett's disposition hardens into a competitive streak that belies her personality.
"Stephanie is a unique runner," said Jerry Rose, who has been coaching at Leland since 1993. "She has an amazing internal drive - it's the kind of intangible that you can't coach."
Barnett began running in grade school, where she defeated the boys during races in P.E. class. She recalls that one of her first timed miles was about 8 1/2 minutes.
In her freshman year, Barnett finished second in the Central Coast Section Division II cross-country race at Crystal Springs and fourth among all runners. And last year she was the fastest of all five divisions in the section championships, covering the three-mile Toro Park course in 18 minutes 12 seconds.
What sets the 5-foot-6, 105-pound junior apart is her success running hills, a skill she honed on the rugged terrain of Almaden's Quicksilver Park.
"I love the hills," said Barnett, who is entered in Saturday's Stanford Invitational, where she was the fastest CCS runner last year. "That's where I try to push my hardest and make my move.
"Once you have run a hard workout at Quicksilver, that pretty much prepares you for anything."
Barnett, 16, also excels in the classroom where she maintains a 4.0 GPA. Her goal is to run at UCLA.
But success hasn't changed her. She maintains a mature perspective about her sport.
"I know all the girls I race against, they are all really nice," Barnett said. "But once the race starts I don't feel bad about beating them, or getting beat. If they win, you just have to tell them, 'You did a good job.'"
Barnett's sister Claudia is an up-and-coming sophomore who runs No. 2 for the Chargers. Sophomore Michelle Hsieh, freshmen Julia Mangin and Emily Childress and junior Ashley Nguyen round out a young but talented lineup.
"'This is the best group of young runners I have had a chance to coach," Rose said. "I think we might be able to surprise people at the end of the season."
• Gunn freshman Jackie Evans won the Central Park Invitational on Tuesday in 13:50.1, nearly 18 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Sumika Shiokawa of Cupertino.
• Palo Alto senior Mia Lattanzi has returned to competition after missing league finals in track and field because of plantar fasciitis. Lattanzi (14:48) was seventh at the Central Park race. She was the state runner-up in the 800 meters as a sophomore.
• The Stanford Invitational, one of the most prestigious cross-country events in California, will be held at the Stanford Golf Course. Varsity competition begins at 9:46 a.m., with the boys seeded race scheduled for 3:21 p.m. and the girls seeded race at 3:44 p.m.