Sitting at a table on her patio last week, former East Mountain High School distance runner and 2020 graduate Marissa Case reflected on the moment in March when she got the heads-up that the coronavirus pandemic could derail her senior season.
“I remember it was a Wednesday and Coach Keller sat us down and said, ‘I expect that this will impact us at some point,’ but it didn’t seem like it’d be anything too serious,” Case said, wearing a blue and white face covering.
The day after Coach Keller gave his team the news, East Mountain’s next scheduled track meet got canceled. A day later, school was suspended. A few weeks after that, the state canceled the remainder of the academic school year and the New Mexico Activities Association pulled the plug on spring sports.
Having only competed in one meet in early March, Case’s final season had been cut short. Her high school running career was over.
“I was very upset but also at the same time, it didn’t feel real, just because I had all these expectations of how the last bit of senior year would fall into place,” Case said.
East Mountain’s head track coach, Phil Keller, said Case had been running as well or slightly better than she was her junior year—when she won the Class 3A girls state title in the 3,200-meter race.
“You just don’t know what might’ve happened,” Keller said about Case’s lost 2020 season.
“I was obviously disappointed,” Case added. “But it made me really glad that I had all the other good years and all the other accomplishments—but yeah, I’m sad I didn’t get one last season.”
In addition to winning the gold medal her junior year, Case also took fourth place in the 1,600m race. During her sophomore year, she placed fourth in the 3,200m race, and in the fall of her senior year she finished fourth at the 3A girls cross country state championship race—all high enough finishes to earn a spot on the podium.
Case is now shifting her focus to college where she hopes to continue her running career. She recently got a big boost to her spirits when she was awarded the New Mexico Track and Cross Country Coaches Association’s Sepulveda Scholarship.
“I was definitely very happy and grateful that I got it,” Case said. “I wasn’t expecting to get it.”
The New Mexico Track and Cross Country Coaches Association, or NMTCCCA, gives out two Sepulveda Scholarships every year worth $750 each. The scholarships are awarded to graduating seniors, one to a male and one to a female.
Scholarship candidates must have competed for three years in either cross country or track and field, or four years combined with two years competition in both sports. According to its website, the NMTCCCA looks for athletes who exemplify the true spirit of the two sports.
In an email to The Independent, NMTCCCA’s director, Spencer Sielschott, said, “Marissa has had a very long, rewarding experience with both sports. Also we are enlightened by how a candidate evolves as a person from their hard work and dedication to become better, and Marissa was chosen due to these qualities. We are very proud to have Melissa Case as our 2020 Sepulveda scholar.”
Coach Keller said Case has always had good sportsmanship, she is competitive, and she battled through adversity and maintained a positive demeanor.
Keller also said Case was not someone who came in as one of East Mountain’s top runners, but she put in the time and effort to climb the ladder and lead the team.
“She really improved each year and that shows her work ethic,” Keller said. “She worked really hard to be a leader by example, she worked on her finish speed, and worked on her weaknesses and that’s a strength of hers.”
Case is getting ready to start classes at the University of New Mexico where she’ll be majoring in biology and minoring in studio art—and her goal is to walk-on to the University of New Mexico’s cross country and track teams.
“I’m a little excited, I’m also quite nervous, especially with everything going on,” Case said, adding that she knows it will be hard.
Case said she has been in touch with UNM’s cross country associate head coach, Laura Bowerman, who encouraged her to keep running and keep improving.
“I love running, running has done a lot for me and opened up a lot for me,” Case said. “It just sounds like, if you put the work in and you’re fast enough, I honestly don’t think it’ll be any harder than high school.”
Ger has been writing and shooting photos of high school sports for The Independent for 15 years. His dedication to youth athletics goes beyond sports reporting. He is past president of East Mountain Little League and works as a baseball umpire. He lives in Edgewood with his family.