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Trendsetters: How Jenna Hutchins and Sasha Neglia changed girls distance running

Tanner Cook • Updated Apr 24, 2019 at 8:35 PM

At the pinnacle of high school distance running, it can be lonely.

It is rare for a high-caliber runner to receive competition within close proximity to their own home. It’s almost like something out of a movie script and when it happens, it makes for great theater.

Nowadays, the area’s bar has been taken to a whole other level by the two All-American front runners in Science Hill freshman state cross country champion Jenna Hutchins and Dobyns-Bennett three-time state champion Sasha Neglia.

The D-B and Science Hill rivalry has deep roots in all sports. But for two elite distance runners who come from different cities and programs, there is a mutual respect for one another.

What the two have accomplished over the past few months has been simply unbelievable. It is almost a week-to-week, ever-changing story and it’s hard to keep up if you do not pay close attention.

FRESHMAN PRODIGY

Hutchins came out of Liberty Bell Middle School with a lot of clout. She is originally from a rich heritage of distance running in Texas.

Winning her first race in cross country at the deceptively hard course in the WNC Cross Country Festival in Hendersonville, North Carolina, in August she might live up to the hype. The story took on a different level when Hutchins beat Neglia in September at the Cherokee Classic in Knoxville in an extremely close race by one second.

After winning the state meet and showing her speed on the track in a 3,200 time trial in North Carolina winning in 10:26, she had a chance to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals and did, where she finished ninth. She was the second-highest placing freshman in the country in San Diego.

“I was really impressed. I knew she would be up there and it’s really cool to see someone up there that high at nationals locally,” Neglia said.

She doesn’t quite have the decorated resume of Neglia, but that is simply because she hasn’t been in high school as long. Her record on the track this year both indoors and outdoors is 4-0.

“The ride has been really great and I’ve enjoyed getting to work hard and having fun out there,” Hutchins said.

SEASONED VETERAN

It seems like Neglia is in about her sixth year of high school, but the truth is that she is just a junior and is hardly finished with her storied career.

She burst onto the scene from John Sevier Middle School and blazed a new trail, leaving everyone in her dust, winning the cross country state meet in her first season. The same could be said her sophomore year when she made an appearance at the Nike Cross Country Nationals and finished an impressive 24th overall.

In 2018, she ended up winning the Southeast regional and went on to place 15th in Portland at nationals.

Her track personal bests aren’t too shabby either as last June, she barely lost to CAK’s then-senior Rebecca Story in the dying stages of the high school elite mile race at the Music City Distance Carnival, running 4:50.69 (which converts to 4:49.10 for 1,600 meters). And she also earned the Tennessee’s Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year award last fall.

BY THE NUMBERS

The two are the only female distance runners ever to break five minutes for the 1,600 meters in the area and are currently ranked sixth and eighth all-time in Tennessee for the event.

Over the weekend at the Volunteer Track Classic in Knoxville, they matched up for the first time in the two-mile run and ran the fastest times in the state with Hutchins prevailing by just over a second. Converted, Hutchins’ time of 10:21.39 places her third on the all-time state list for 3,200 and Neglia is fourth, sitting at 10:23.23.

The only two runners in front of them are Story and Kathy Kroeger of Independence. Story was third at Foot Locker Nationals in 2016 and was a two-time national finalist.

She also holds the state records in both the 1,600 and 3,200. The current 1,600 record is 4:43.91 and the 3,200 is 9:59.80.

Kroeger was the Foot Locker cross country national champion in 2006, runner-up in 2007 and sixth in 2008. She still holds the state cross country course record of 16:59.45. Kroeger also holds the state record for 5K on a cross country course from 2006 when she ran 16:32 at Foot Locker South.

STRIKING SIMILARITIES

It is almost scary how close the two are in terms of personal bests on the track and on a cross country course.

For starters, both girls won the Large Schools division as freshman in cross country.

Neglia has the slightly faster 5K cross country personal best with a 17:18.60 (2018 Jesse Owens Classic) while Hutchins ran 17:25.80 at the Foot Locker South.

In the three major distance events for track, Hutchins has a better 800 meters personal best of 2:16.95 while Neglia has run 2:17.43.

Neglia has a slight advantage in the 1,600 of 4:49.10 to Hutchins’ 4:50.18.

In the 3,200, Hutchins again has a slightly better time of 10:21.39 while Neglia ran 10:23.23 in the same race.

In total for the four major events the two predominantly run, the time difference between personal bests is 10.60 seconds.

“I think it’s really nice to have someone up at the front,” Neglia said. “It’s really helpful, especially when we get to the national races. It’s good to be familiar running with other really good runners.”

What is the ceiling for the two phenoms?

It is impossible to tell, but the duo will almost certainly change the landscape of the Tennessee state record book when it is all said and done.

“I love getting to represent Northeast Tennessee in something that I’m really passionate about,” Hutchins concluded.

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