By: Mark Maloney
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Stan Rosenthal, in his 12th year as cross country coach at South Carolina, makes no bones about it.
The Gamecocks are not typically able to recruit the best distance runners in the country.
After all, the Carolina women have never finished better than fifth place (in 1999) at the SEC Championships.
"So I try to focus my recruiting attention on people that are good that we have a chance at," Rosenthal said.
Which brings us to Kayla Lampe, who is in the running for top freshman in the conference this season.
Why South Carolina for the runner out of Downington, Pa.?
"Coach Rosenthal was recruiting me and I came down for a visit, and I just fell in love with the school," Lampe said. "It's really nice, and I just liked everything that was going on with the running program here. And the team seemed really welcoming and friendly."
Through her first three races of the season, Lampe has recorded a first-, second- and third-place finish.
Her 6,000-meter time of 21:06.24 at last month's Commodore Classic ranks fifth in the conference.
An earlier 5K of 17:10.20 ranks 10th.
Lampe arrived in Columbia last year, but redshirted in cross country and indoor track due to a stress reaction suffered during her senior year of high school.
Her top result for Bishop Shanahan High School came when she placed 14th in the Pennsylvania state meet as a junior.
Her personal bests of 11:18 for 3,200 meters and 18:28 for 5,000 were modest on the national scale -- but in range to catch Rosenthal's eye.
The kicker was Lampe's ability in the classroom.
"Kayla was the perfect recruit in that she had really good test scores, she had really good grades, so there was an excellent chance she was going to get academic scholarships, which would help reduce the cost," Rosenthal said.
Last year was an "off" year, when Carolina's team ranked 33rd nationally in grade-point average.
Traditionally, the Gamecocks are among the top 20 in the nation. In 2008, they were No. 1.
Lampe's aid includes a Woodrow Scholar grant for academic excellence.
A 4.0 student, she is a nursing major.
"Nursing is a really good way to give back, and it's a really rewarding career," Lampe said. "My goal in the future is to become a nurse practitioner, and I think I want to work in pediatrics."
For now, though, Lampe is passing exams rather than giving them.
She made her collegiate debut on the track last outdoor season.
Competing at the Penn Relays, she dropped her 5K time to 17:05.
She came back in the SEC Championships, placing eighth in 16:55 -- a Gamecocks freshman record and third all-time at the school.
"We're always trying to get the fastest people we can get. But Kayla has obviously exceeded our expectations in the sense that she's running the kinds of times that we felt that everyone (on the team) will do, but she's done it a little quicker than maye you would expect from someone whose best time in high school was like 18:20 or 18:30," Rosenthal said. "To do what she was doing as a (track) freshman was really exceptional. To do what sh'e doing this year in cross country is real exceptional, too, because she's racing really well."
Lampe credits her rapid improvement to "a lot of hard work, a lot of good workouts. Definitely putting in more mileage (about 60 miles a week) than I was in high school. And I just consistently was improving my time each race."
Rosenthal says that a big part of Lampe's success comes from a knack for keeping cool under pressure.
Although she's been running hard from the start this season, trying to "drop" competitors, that strategy might not work against the toughest competition.
"At the conference championship, in the 5K, the goal for her was to literally start out last, then work her way up," Rosenthal said. "Just kind of keep running 80-second pace. She moved all the way up and, with a lap to go, she got in with two girls from Vanderbilt and they were sixth, seventh and eighth. They both outkicked her at the end, but it was a great race -- she really couldn't have done a whole lot better than she did."
Lampe wants to continue to improve.
She wants to qualify for the NCAA Championships, improve her 5K track time and make a strong debut at 10,000 meters.
"I really want this team to do well, especially at SECs," she added. "And if everyone's healthy, I think we can do that."
Rosenthal would be pleased to see his team take a baby step by following in Lampe's steps.
"We're just trying to claw our way out of the bottom third of the SEC is what we're trying to accomplish this year," he said. "... The SEC's a really difficult conference. It's just like football in cross country -- nobody's really bad and a lot of people are really good. So you can be a lot better and still not necessarily be higher in the standings than you were the year before when you weren't as good."