Haley Anderson finished running Clayton Tillery’s physical education class-mandated mile two years ago in 6 minutes 20 seconds. She took just one breath to recover and then asked, "Is that it?"
"I knew she was pretty talented right away," said Tillery, the West Forsyth cross country and track coach.
But Tillery did not get to see that talent then. This was Anderson’s sophomore year. She was in the middle of her tennis phase, which came after her cheerleading phase, which had been a natural progression for Anderson after her gymnastics phase.
All of which blended neatly with one another since she was 2 years old – until this season, when Tillery finally got his wish and Anderson turned into one of Forsyth County’s most surprising runners.
"He thinks it’s hilarious," Anderson said. "He says, ‘Do you realize what you could’ve been if you had started two years ago when I told you to?’"
Now, two phases have overlapped – the tennis one in which Anderson is a part of West’s No. 2 doubles team, and the running one in which Anderson is the most mysterious distance runner for West track and field.
Here’s the tantalizing mystery – Anderson hardly knows what she is as she participates in track and field for the first time ever. But if it is anything like how her first season ever of cross country went, it could be remarkable.
No, Anderson probably won’t win a state title this season. Right now, she just wants to keep up with West’s precocious freshmen duo of Julie Ericson and Liz Galarza, fellow distance runners who pushed her during cross country. Which went well; after joining West’s cross country team over the summer, Anderson steadily improved to where she finished fifth in Region 6-AAAAAA and 10th at the state meet.
It was impressive enough for Georgia Tech to offer Anderson a preferred walk-on spot, and so here she is now, juggling tennis and track, one for the love and the other for the challenge.
Consider Feb. 25. Anderson began the afternoon on the court helping her doubles partner Meg Moran win a 6-3, 6-2 match against Flowery Branch. Then it was off to the track. Anderson won the 400-meter dash in 1:02.35, the 800 in 2:34.83 and helped West beat Alpharetta in the 1600 relay – in her first track meet ever.
"Untapped potential," Tillery said. "When she gets out here you find out just how talented she is. She could run almost any event on the track right now. I’m pretty convinced of that."
Anderson could seemingly do anything growing up.
Her mom started her in gymnastics at 2 to do "the whole mommy-and-me thing," Anderson said. "We played in the foam pit and jumped in the trampoline and stuff,"
After Anderson’s mom learned tennis, she signed Haley up for lessons at 8 years old. Lessons were once a week. Matches were too.
"You played doubles, and you had a cute little team practice," Anderson said. "It was fun."
When Anderson entered middle school, she joined the competition and football cheerleading teams. Gymnastics was out of the picture. Tumbling was in.
Cheerleading lasted until ninth grade. Anderson loved the tumbling and the Friday Night Lights atmosphere but not the competitions. Tennis took priority.
That’s where Anderson was headed by the end of last school year. She had one phase all to itself again. She could focus on tennis and getting in to Georgia Tech.
Until this past July. Anderson had avoided Tillery’s campaign for her to join West’s cross country team. She had always run for fun, to stay in shape in tennis, but it was only a couple of times a week. Anderson didn’t see the fun in competitive running.
"I thought it would just be hard and terrible," she said.
What Anderson discovered during that summer workout was that competitive running was hard, and that’s what she liked about it.
"I liked the challenge part of it," Anderson said.
Her first cross country race, the Pickens Preview in August, Tillery started Anderson in the middle of the pack. Halfway through the race she was leading that pack. She passed runner after runner. It got hard. But Anderson finished 13th out of 165 runners in 21:15.94.
"It was really fun," Anderson said. "Based on that time it was already shocking me more than I had expected."
Shock quickly gave way to mundane. Anderson immediately developed into one of the county’s top runners. Her 10th place finish at state was second among Forsyth County runners.
When Georgia Tech offered Anderson her walk-on spot, her spring suddenly became complicated. To get the spot, Tech needed Anderson to also run track. So Anderson decided to run track and play tennis.
Tillery and West girls tennis coach James Hallewell compared schedules and worked out a way for Anderson to participate in both.
"We try to make it to where we can accommodate her and what she wants to do," Tillery said. "She definitely adds to our tennis program here, and it’s obvious she loves tennis.
"It’s obvious she has an opportunity to run in college, so I don’t think [Hallewell] wants to do anything to stop that. It helps us all."
"I don’t think any of this would be possible without my teammates and the coaches being so understanding," Anderson said.
What’s possible this track season remains to be seen. Tillery said Anderson will probably concentrate on the 800 and 1,600 as the season progresses. She ran her first mile race Saturday at the Savannah State Early Bird Invitational, a meet that ended too late for this edition, but Tillery said Anderson’s times during practices suggest she could qualify for the state meet in May.
Anderson doesn’t even think about that. All she can do, she said, is try to keep up with Ericson and Galarza, to keep going to 5:15 a.m. runs three times a week and weight training after. Next week, let alone next month at region or next school year at Tech, doesn’t register with Anderson, she said.
Everything is one day, one practice, one meet at a time for Anderson.
"It’s kind of touch and go, up for grabs," Anderson said. "I don’t really know what to expect at this point."