When Liz Harper arrived in Pullman, Washington, as a decorated prep athlete stepping into one of the most competitive conferences in college track, she admits there were some nerves to deal with.
How could there not be?
Harper dominated the Class AA track as a Sentinel Spartan, winning seven state golds during her illustrious career. But as a fresh-faced sprinter on a Washington State team trying to gain traction in the Pac-12 Conference, a new world of top-flight runners were waiting.
Girls with "Oregon" and "USC" and "Stanford" written across their jerseys were now lining up in the lanes next to Harper. Admittedly it took some time to adjust.
But just as she did as a sophomore at Sentinel, Harper is beginning to make a name for herself. She will enter Oregon's Hayward Field on Thursday as one of eight sophomores in the 24-woman 400-meter hurdles field.
And just as she entered the state meet in her second year of high school, Harper, who is scheduled to run in the first prelim, arrives with high expectations.
"I want to run a 56," said Harper, who enters the race on the heels of a personal best 57.31 at the Pac-12 Championship.
Fifty-six seconds may not be enough to win the 400 hurdles – two runners including Kentucky senior Kendra Harrison have sub-56 posting times – but it would be a grand moment in Cougar track history.
If Harper achieves her goal she would become the fastest 400 hurdler in program history. The mark she ran at the Pac-12 meet vaulted her to second, just a few tenths of a second away from the time Randi Smith ran in 2000, when Harper was 5 years old.
"It’s exciting. I just have to figure out a little bit of stepping issues and I’m right there," Harper said.
That Harper is in position to challenge at nationals, or that she is one of 11 Cougars in Eugene, shouldn't come as a surprise but to her it has.
In addition to the mental adjustments she had to make, Harper spent much of her first year in Pullman battling tendinitis that slowed her progression.
"It definitely took me a year," she said. "Running against girls that are soon to be pros is a lot to take in only being a freshman. It was a little intimidating at first."
Rick Sloan, who coached Washington State for 32 years, retired after Harper's first year. The Cougars turned to Wayne Phipps, who competed for Montana before a successful run at Idaho earned him Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honors.
The nine titles he won with the Vandals convinced WSU administrators that Phipps was the person needed to help raise the program out of the conference cellar.
A fifth-place finish greeted the women's program in Phipps' first season, but Harper said the coaching change ushered in a new training regiment that helped her achieve times she couldn't reach as a freshman.
"I feel that I’ve been a lot faster than I was last year," Harper said.
Her times dwindled throughout the season before reaching their lowest point at the Pac-12 meet. Though she finished fourth in the 400 hurdles that day at UCLA, Harper said it helped lift her confidence heading into her first West regional meet held at the University of Texas.
When she finally realized she qualified for nationals, emotions nearly overtook her similar to how they did when she won two state golds during her final prep meet at Bozeman High in 2013.
"As soon as I figured out I was going to nationals there were no words," Harper recalled. "I wanted to cry I was so excited. It’s been a big change from this year to last year. I’m just blessed."
Harper is one of a handful of local athletes who will compete Thursday in Eugene. She'll be joined by fellow Montanan Paige Squires in the 400 hurdles.
Squires, who helped Corvallis claim the 2011 Class A title with a performance that included three class records and 35 points, narrowly qualified for the national meet with a 12th-place time of 58.93 at the West regional.
Squires is accompanied by fellow Bobcats senior Heather Demorest, a long distance specialist during her time at Darby High who enters the national meet with the 20th fastest time in 3,000 steeplechase.
As a junior for the Tigers, Demorest captured a Class C cross country title in fall and then followed it with a first-place finishes in the 1,600 and 3,200 at the state meet in spring.
A year later after crossing the line third in the cross country meet, Demorest won her second 1,600 title.
Messages left for Demorest and Squires were not returned.