Cactus’ Gibbs leaps to prominence in senior cross country season

Cactus senior and Peoria resident Maggie Gibbs poses for a photograph on Oct. 31 at Cactus High School in Glendale. She is the No. 2 ranked cross country runner in Division III heading into state Nov. 10. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Cactus Cross Country coach Rich Levan heard the reports back from San Diego this summer and thought his very good distance runner was in the process of becoming great

.Nothing Maggie Gibbs has done this cross country season would discourage that conclusion.

The Cactus senior has been a fixture near the top of the Division III charts since her freshman year. But this fall, she is No. 2 with a bullet entering state, which is Nov. 10 at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix.

“She ran at Coronado Island and spent (most of the) summer in San Diego. She did a 12K. She told me she was four minutes faster than the year before. Then she told me what her time and her pace was and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty fast.’ And she said she ran that about 70 percent. I realized everything was coming together,” Levan said.

Gibbs finished fifth at the state meet last year, after placing eighth as a sophomore and 11th as a freshman.

This year, she shattered that personal best, running 17:56.3 at the Desert Twilight festival in Casa Grande. Before that, her top time was 18:36 on the same course.

“I was shooting to break 18 minutes and I got that goal. So the next goal is to win sectionals and to put it all out there at state,” Gibbs said.

This season reflect a bit of a shift in Gibbs’ mindset. Prior to this year she was competitive, but also approached distance running more as something to do for fun.

Gibbs said she started cross country in third grade just to be active.

Cactus has not been known for its distance program in recent years, but the Peoria native did not consider that at all when deciding on a high school. She now is a student council officer.

“Cactus is my school. I love it here,” Gibbs said. “It’s good to be able to say I run for this school and it’s amazing school — and we’re still just getting started with our program”

Instead, Gibbs has elevated the program in her time on the Cactus campus. She was a major factor in Levan’s arrival in the spring of 2017.

Prior to that, Levan coached at Liberty High School.

“Maggie is the reason I’m here. I had a club team at the time and her mother insisted she run for my club team. She qualified for nationals, though we didn’t go that year. And it was her mom that said, ‘Hey, we ought to get him over here.’ And it worked out because at the time Liberty had a new coach,” he said.

As consistently good as Gibbs performed, the coach could not help but think more was there.

“During track season I noticed she was always running one pace, and it was her mile pace. We really worked on different paces,” Levan said. “Coming into cross country, the big thing I had her look at was nutrition. You have to start looking at fueling her body for distance running. She’s gotten stronger.”

Gibbs said her junior year was probably the first time she thought she ran well.

Now she enters races with more belief in herself, and better conditioned to hold up over longer distances.

“I’m more confident in my abilities now. In the past I’ve been hesitant to go out there and keep pushing. But this year, I’ve learned more about running is and how to run a good race,” Gibbs said.

Always in a different league than her Cactus girls teammates, she has become accustomed to running with the boys team in practice — except for sophomore Gilbert Olivas, who is ranked No. 10 among Division III boys.

Levan said he credits her senior year improvement to increased health after core and upper body work this summer — effort has never been a problem.

“I’ve never had an athlete where I can say, ‘this is what I want you to run,” and she runs exactly what I want her to run. Now she’s actually running faster than what I set the pace,” Levan said.

In part her pace is set by a tremendous crop of seniors running in Arizona. Gibbs faced Division I contender Morgan Foster of Chandler early this year. She continues to duel with Chinle senior Alisia Honyumptewa, just losing to her by a second at the Doug Conley Invitatioinal in Tempe.

Then there’s reigning Division III champ Samantha Schadler of Rio Rico, who ran a 17.20 this year and is simply one of the best runner’s in the state, regardless of division.

“They are amazing runners and I always know they’re going to be at state and other meets. It’s good to have that competitive aspect. It’s good to know that I’m also in that pool of runners. They’re really inspiring, I would say,” Gibbs said.

Now, Levan said, Gibbs realizes she’s closer to that level. He believes she will close the gap even more at state.

“It’s been fun to watch. And seeing what I do in practice, I believe she can go a lot faster. She’s gotten to the tip of her potential,” Levan said.

More gains are possible during track season. Gibbs said she want to run the 1,600 in less than five minutes and the 3,200 in less than 11.

Talked to a few schools but waiting till after the season.By then, she also hopes to have decided on a college. Levan said she has filled out questionnaires for several schools and attended a camp at the University of Nevada. Miami University of Ohio and the University of New Hampshire have also shown interest.

With Nike and Foot Locker cross country events looming after the Arizona season, though, college choices probably will wait until the new year.

Gibbs said she wants to be a pediatric oncology nurse.

Until then she plans to spend a lot of time running or reading. She also likes to hike and swim and is just starting to take an interest in photography.

Gibbs also is enjoying the tight-knit, fun atmosphere with her small team.

“We joke around. The other day I had her and another girl – whose mother teaches at Pioneer across the street – hide. I filled up 45 water balloons and the three of us went and hid. We ambushed them on their run. We’re a small team and everybody keeps close. She is very down to earth about it and tries to motivate everybody else,” Levan said.

Maggie Gibbs
Cactus’ Maggie Gibbs finishes first during Peoria Unified’s district cross country championship on Oct. 19, 2017 at Thunderbird Paseo Park in Glendale. Gibbs is back for her senior season as one of the top runners in Division III. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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