Always the consummate team member, Hannah Knickerbocker thoroughly enjoys time spent with her fellow Cobbers and can't stand the thought of being separated from her Concordia College cross country teammates.
She would want you to know it's nothing personal, but sometimes she just can't help it.
Indeed, there comes a time when you must strike out on your own and leave others behind, no matter how painful, and it happened with regularity for Knickerbocker this fall. While the junior from Stanchfield gladly blended in seamlessly with her teammates her first two years, she has quietly developed into the long distance leader and begun to distance herself from the rest of the Concordia cast.
Coach Marv Roeske has noticed the change in his long distance leader, and has been delighted with her progress. "It's been a gradual, steady improvement, almost textbook. She's kept doing what she's always been doing, running lots of miles and building her base. There's nothing magic about it, just hard work."
Her junior season for the ages continued at the recent MIAC Championships. She earned honorable mention all-conference honors by placing 18th and helped the Cobbers to a sixth-place overall finish, their best mark since 2000. She was clocked at 23:18.2, a personal best and nearly 40 seconds faster than her time of a year ago.
Earlier in the season she was saluted as the MIAC Runner of the Week. Separating herself from the rest, even in conversation, makes her uncomfortable, but Roeske insists she deserves the attention.
"It's a quiet group, but a close group, and when Hannah was named the athlete of the week I think everybody else was happier than she was," said Roeske. "She's very humble, very modest and a very good teammate. Everybody likes her, you can't not like Hannah. She's that kind of person."
Roeske expects Knickerbocker to put her best foot forward at the NCAA Regional on Saturday and set the pace for the Cobbers, but she doesn't have to get out of character to reach her dreams.
"We are currently ranked 10th, and would like to get in the top seven," Roeske explained. "That would be huge. That would be our best finish since we went to nationals in 2000. Hannah has to be Hannah; she just needs to be who she has been every race this year."
Knickerbocker insists motivation won't be a problem.
"We're trying to beat the Bennies," said Knickerbocker. "We got sixth at the MIAC, seven points behind them (St. Benedict's), and our goal at regionals is to beat them. They have a good pack going, and that's what we had this year. Hopefully, we can get our pack to have just a little edge over them."
Roeske is certain Knickerbocker is far from finished improving. "If she maintains the course she's on she should make the top 10 next year," said Roeske. She is also adapting to an expanded leadership role.
"It's always fun with our group of girls," said Knickerbocker. "We have our roles and work well together, and if I end up a leader that would be even better. I still think we're close together in times, and we feed off each other."
Knickerbocker competed in cross-country, track and volleyball at Cambridge-Isanti High School, and learned early on about the Concordia College legacy from her prep coach, a onetime Cobber.
"My distance and cross-country coach, Josh Lowman, loved the Cobber family, and I babysat for his kids," explained Knickerbocker. "I looked at some other schools, but once I visited I felt like I could fit (in) here. It made me want to be a part of that connection."
Academics, not athletics, was her major priority when she checked into Concordia in 2010 to begin her freshman year.
"I thought it would be nice to run in college, but I didn't think I would. I was just trying to fit in, find my place on the team and go from there, and every year it's been progressively better. "I would like to get all-conference. It's just amazing to me that I've become honorable mention all-conference, and I look forward to it"
A cross-country and track letterwinner at Concordia College, Knickerbocker was elected captain of both teams and collected All-MIAC honors in each. A Dietetics major, Knickerbocker maintains a healthy blend of academics and athletics and leans heavily on an old-fashioned value of hard work.
"I put in a lot of miles, and hopefully the base I've put in will give me a good boost. In the summer I run about 60 miles a week. During the (school) year I put in some two-a-days, starting about 6:15, because I have to get ready for class. It's a good way to start the day; I feel more awake and more alive. It's nice getting your day started before anyone else."
She is convinced participating in track and cross-country pays dividends in the classroom, too.
"I think it helps, and if you talk to other student-athletes they would say the same thing. You need time-management, and you have to get that structure down. You figure out when you need to get things done and do it more efficiently. I was always in sports in high school, so it was a natural transition."
After Knickerbocker completes her undergraduate degree, she'll search for an internship in Dietetics, traditionally a yearlong program. "There are three main areas--- community, clinical and food service. I could end up in a hospital, or working in a WIC program, or educating people about improving their health. I like that there are different aspects, and as I go I can find my way."
What will she miss most when she finally puts Concordia College in her rear view mirror?
"I get to hang out with my roommates and I get to go practice with my teammates. I'll miss that, and all the connections you make. The Cobber family is close knit; good, quality people."
She still has races to run before she reaches her own collegiate finish line. Her coaches and teammates are certain she has more milestones to reach and memories to create.
In the long run, of course.