Favorite athlete: Shalane Flanagan
Favorite team: Philadelphia Eagles
Favorite memory competing in sports: During spring track, winning the 3200 at the league championships two years in a row along with my team winning three years in a row too.
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: My sophomore year I was leading a (cross country) race, and then I got lost and sadly did not win the race, which almost made my team lose the dual meet.
Music on mobile device: Country: Dan and Shay
Future plans: Running in college
Words to live by: “Everything happens for a reason.”
One goal before turning 30: Own as many dogs as I possibly can.
One thing people don’t know about me: I make a mean three-cheese Kraft mac and cheese
By Ed Morrone
Joan Thornton vividly remembers the first day she laid eyes on the diminutive, wiry seventh grader.
It was four-and-a-half years ago when Thornton, the head girls cross country coach at Council Rock South, spotted Marisa Kilgarriff. Thornton was watching eighth graders run a spring track meet, searching for talented speedsters who would soon ascend to the high school level. Kilgarriff was only in seventh grade, so she wasn’t on the coach’s radar, but she caught Thornton’s eye during a 1600M race.
“At the time, Marisa was only a little seventh grader,” Thornton recalled. “Right from the start of the mile, she captured my attention with her fierce, competitive spirit. Although she did not win the mile that day, I knew she was a winner. I was impressed that Marisa didn’t back off when racing girls that were older, faster and more experienced.”
That Thornton discovered Kilgarriff essentially by accident is a fitting twist to the story, as Kilgarriff never viewed herself as a serious runner. In fact, she didn’t even start running competitively until that seventh-grade year, trying just about every other sport under the sun before cross country and track entered into her orbit.
Her parents signed her up for softball, basketball, field hockey and soccer, and she had varying interest levels in them all. As a little girl, she loved soccer so much that she wanted to play professionally one day, before realizing later that, as a midfielder, her favorite part of the sport was the constant running up and down the field. Then, her fall sport became field hockey, and the original plan was to play that in high school.
In the spring, Kilgarriff enjoyed softball, but tryouts were no fun in the freezing cold. After awhile, because of Kilgarriff’s speed, her mother and various friends and coaches in her other sports began nudging her toward track.
“Eventually, I switched over, and honestly it was one of the best decisions of my life,” Kilgarriff recalled. “I don’t know what would have happened or where I’d be if I didn’t.”
Once Thornton saw the pure, natural speed that Kilgarriff possessed, she went to work on convincing the young runner to consider cross country. At first, Kilgarriff wasn’t having it, because, “As a middle schooler, I thought that running all of the time would be terrible.”
However, the more Kilgarriff ran, the more she loved it. And, as she soon found out, she was good at it too, which always helps matters.
“I just kept doing it, and I was learning more every day,” she said. “I started to catch a base, and then I was getting faster. That’s when I thought, ‘This could be something good.’”
Kilgarriff was right. At the high school level, the top seven cross country runners on a team comprise the varsity squad, and during her freshman year Kilgarriff shot up the depth chart. By the end of her inaugural campaign, she was the team’s No. 1 runner.
“I didn’t think that would happen,” Kilgarriff said. “I didn’t think I’d find my passion in running, either. It’s crazy how one decision can determine your future. As I got faster, I realized more and more how much it meant to me.
“Any bad day I had, a good run could cancel everything out. I count on it to make me feel better. It’s become my whole entire life. I can’t go a day without running, it puts the icing on the cake for everything for me.”
As a freshman, Kilgarriff didn’t want the upperclassmen to think she was coming in to try to take anything over, but at the same time, she started to realize that she needed to run to her abilities rather than working off of her teammates. She finished fourth at leagues, and though she didn’t think she was the best yet, “I knew that when I did, the next three years would be something special.”
One drawback to having so much success at something early on is the inevitable pressure to keep achieving at such a high level that starts to creep in. By the time winter indoor track season came around during Kilgarriff’s sophomore year. Thornton said her star runner experienced “a few bumps in the road, putting too much pressure on herself to hit qualifying times,” and Kilgarriff confirmed that to be the case. She had done so well for herself to start her varsity career that the only way she could look was up, putting unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on herself. This, paired with her getting sick right before leagues, caused frustration that she hadn’t experienced before.
“In running, it’s all about a positive attitude, because all of it is mental,” she said. “If you have that mentality of, ‘I need to get this time or finish in this place,’ you’re never going to get it. I put a bunch of numbers into my head without realizing that, from year to year, other runners got better too. I kind of fell apart.”
Thornton said Kilgarriff got back to basics and “recalibrated her expectations for herself.” When she did that, she bounced back with a strong spring track season that saw her qualify for districts in the 3200M.
“Once I got to the spring, I just let go of everything and went back to having fun,” Kilgarriff said. “I had created so many memories and everyone had been so supportive, always cheering for me, so I let go of chasing times.
“When I did that, stopped worrying about the placement of the other team and started worrying about myself and the mentality of having fun, I went back to doing my best. Once I qualified for districts, I decided that’s what I needed to bring into the rest of my high school career.”
This translated into Kilgarriff’s junior cross country season, where she set a personal record in every invitational that she ran in. After a strong showing in districts, she qualified for the PIAA state championship race in Hershey. Thornton said that she competed well, outperforming many of her District 1 peers.
A small semblance of doubt crept back into Kilgarriff’s psyche when she got to Hershey, but she quickly dismissed it and ran her best on the challenging, hilly course.
“At first I was very nervous seeing all these individual runners that were so good with such fantastic times,” she recalled. “I wondered to myself, ‘Do I belong here?’ The biggest thing for me in that moment was I knew I did belong. I am one of the runners that people look at as someone who means business. I had already proven I belonged just by getting there. It’s not an experience you get to have a lot, so I had fun with it and enjoyed every moment.”
Kilgarriff experienced more obstacles in the spring of her junior year when she suffered a stress reaction in her shin that kept her out for about half the season. Not only that, but her grandfather became gravely ill, and she and her family flew down to Florida where he lived to say goodbye. Kilgarriff thought about punting whatever was left of the season since she had already lost so much of it, but she knew that her grandfather would have wanted her to stick with it. She said he loved to watch her run and see the joy it brought to her, so she fought back and almost qualified for districts, falling just a second short of qualifying.
Now a senior, she wants to make it back to states in cross country (and perhaps even crack the Top-25), as well as serve as an example to her younger teammates now that she is a captain of the team. Either way, the pressure is off, and she’s just going with it.
Kilgarriff said she hopes to run in college and has received interest from schools at both the Division-I and Division-II level. As of now, she’s keeping her options open and doesn’t want to rush into a decision she might end up regretting.
Last weekend, Kilgarriff finished sixth at the highly-competitive PTXC Invitational in Kutztown against runners from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, running the course in 19:02, an improvement of 40 seconds from last year.
“Marisa is feeling great and is excited to race at the Foundations Invitational in Hershey in two weeks, where once again she’ll toe the line against an accomplished field of runners,” Thornton said. “As for me, I’m going to enjoy every moment with this warm, good-natured athlete in the remaining month that she’s on our roster.
“She is loved and admired by the coaching staff and her teammates. Marisa is a wonderful leader and is deservedly our team captain. I share in her excitement on how this cross country season will unfold. She’s already off to a strong start. Bottom line: Marisa is a gem.”
In the classroom, Kilgarriff is a dedicated student, gravitating toward the sciences and math classes. She said she’d like to study business in college, though she’s not sure what specific field or career path she’s going to strive for yet. She’s approaching the future with an open mind, the same way she does on the track and cross country courses.
In her free time, she has strong bonds with her family and friends and enjoys spending what little free time she has with them. She likes to entertain her friends by cooking. Kilgarriff is also a dog lover, despite the fact that she doesn’t have any of her own due to the fact that her father and brothers are allergic. One day, she’d like to have as many of them as possible in her own house.
She still has the rest of her senior cross country season to look forward to, as well as all of indoor and outdoor track in the winter and spring. However, Kilgarriff already knows how much she’s going to miss her time at Council Rock South when it’s over.
“So many new people have come into my life, and I can’t go a day without talking to any of them,” she said. “It’s all because of the decision I made to run cross country, so it’s crazy how one conversation with Coach Thornton ended up changing my whole demeanor. It opened my eyes to something completely different, and it amazes me to think of how different my entire high school experience could have been.”