Elli Kelsey

Bear Lake’s Elli Kelsey (104) and Elise Kelsey (103) run in the 2A girls cross country state championship Nov. 2, 2019 at the Portneuf Wellness Complex in Pocatello.

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Don’t be fooled by her rail-thin build, brace face and unassuming demeanor — Elli Kelsey is here to beat you, and she’ll most likely succeed.

After a strong end to her freshman season, when she surprised many — maybe even herself — and won the 2A girls cross country state title, Kelsey was even better as a sophomore in 2019. She won six of nine meets, improved her personal-best time by 2.9 seconds and led Bear Lake to its second consecutive runner-up finish at the state meet.

“She’s just tough,” Bear Lake cross country coach Tarl Vickers said. “She doesn’t look like it, she’s the skinniest thing in the world, but she’s tough.”

Kelsey is the Idaho State Journal’s 2019 All-Area Girls Cross Country Athlete of the Year for the second year in a row.

Unlike her freshman year, Kelsey wore the target of ‘top dog’ as a sophomore. Her competitors watched her come out of nowhere to win state as a freshman, but wouldn’t be caught off guard this time.

It rarely mattered for Kelsey.

She opened her sophomore campaign with a win at the Terry Jones Invitational. A week later, she was 10th in the field of 164 at the Cardinal Classic, only finishing behind runners from Idaho’s 4A and 5A classifications.

She followed it with victories at the Tiger/Grizz Invitational, Bob Firman Invitational, Pirate Challenge and Bob Conley Invitational. She was briefly humbled at the Preston Invite, where twin sister Elise edged her to win, but got back on track at the 2A District 5 championship meet, where she ran a personal-best time of 18 minutes, 21.4 seconds to beat the field by 16.6 seconds.

“I remember her freshman year, she was super nervous before every race,” Vickers said. “This year, she was a little more calm and had her legs under her.”

After the district meet, Elli’s confidence surged.

Tiger Grizz cross country (copy)

Bear Lake’s Elli Kelsey competes during the Tiger/Grizz cross country meet at Russ Freeman Park on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 in Idaho Falls.

John Roark/Post Register

For one, she was on track to defend her state title. McCall-Donnelly’s Sophie McManus, her biggest threat and the state runner-up a year earlier, didn’t even win her own district and ran 13.5 seconds slower than Elli on their only common course of the season.

Second, the state meet was to be held at Pocatello’s Portneuf Wellness Complex, where Elli had run the three fastest races of her career — including the district meet she had just won. She felt good about improving her time even more and breaking 17 minutes.

Third, Bear Lake had a real shot to unseat Soda Springs as 2A state champ. The Cardinals had won the previous 13 state titles, but Bear Lake posed a challenge with Elli, Elise and their senior sister, Josi Kelsey, all contenders to finish in the top five.

But on race day, everything went wrong.

Elli finished second, nearly 15 seconds behind McManus. She didn’t improve her time, either, instead running 24 seconds slower than she did at districts nine days earlier on the same course. And Soda Springs extended its title streak to 14, outpointing Bear Lake by 18 even though the Kelsey sisters finished second, third and fifth.

“That race was really off for me,” Elli said. “It was just kind of a weird race. I didn’t get my best time and I just didn’t feel very great. It was just a weird day for me, I guess.”

That left Bear Lake’s ultimate competitor with some unfinished business.

With no track season to look forward to, she just has more time to train for next season.

Elli and the rest of Bear Lake’s cross country runners plan to log 400 miles this summer. Elli hopes it helps her, and the Bears, rise to the top of 2A.

“Get my state champion title back,” Elli said of her goals for next season. “And then as a team, we’re already training for cross country next year. We have a group chat with all the freshmen coming up and we’re going to run 400 miles over the summer. We have big plans. We’re going to work really hard this season to get better.”

Just remember, the little girl in the Bear Lake jersey isn’t as harmless as she looks.

“She’s a competitor. She’s always going to compete,” Vickers said. “If I chopped off her legs, she’d still compete.”

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