Makayla Miller didn't notice anything was wrong at first.
In the middle of her junior season in the fall of 2011, the Plainview cross country runner was still finishing just behind teammates Alex Davis and Rebekah Hickman.
But Indians coach Jerry Naylor started to see a disturbing trend.
"Early in the year, she was finishing right on their heels," Naylor said. "By the time we got to the middle of the season, she started dropping back and when we got to the end of the season, I just knew she wasn't running good."
Miller herself, by the end of September, had started making inquiries into what was causing her problems. Both she and Naylor initially suspected an iron deficiency, common among young female runners.
"I had no idea what was going on and I started to get frustrated," Miller said. "I wasn't keeping up like I knew I could do, so we went to the doctor to check my iron levels."
What they found was far more distressing. Over Christmas break, Miller was diagnosed with mononucleosis, commonly known as 'mono', an immune system disease often contracted among young people. In Miller's case, she believes she was exposed through a friend with the virus.
"They told me that I couldn't run and I didn't like that," Miller said. "I was supposed to be training for track and I was just thinking, 'this is not okay.'"
Mono is a time-intensive sickness, occasionally affecting its victims for up to three months before they can physically return to athletic competition.
"It makes you extremely tired," Miller said. "There was just no motivation to do anything."
But at Plainview, where running is a way of life and the most illustrious program the school has to offer, just coming back was not enough. Miller spent almost a year recovering the endurance and stamina necessary for her to continue competing at the highest levels in the state.
"We don't really know exactly how long it affected me," Miller said. "I don't know if it was just picking back up my confidence and stamina, but it may have affected me during track season."
But time, and effort, heals all wounds, and Naylor has been very pleased with what he's seen out of one of his star seniors this season. In pre-state competition at Shawnee a week ago, Miller finished fourth overall among 2A and 3A competitors with a 12:07 time in the 3,200-meter event, right on pace with her best finishes as a sophomore.
"She's been getting after it in practice and training like a champion, and she's running like that too," Naylor said. "Trying to be out there and do something, and not being able to do it, really made her appreciate her health."
Page 2 of 2 - Miller, for her part, certainly agreed with her coach.
"I've always been pretty healthy, and that was the first time I'd gotten sick in two years," Miller said. "I am so glad that I finally feel myself again."
Davis, the state's reigning runner of the year, may get more press, but admitted that she leans on her teammate as a source of inspiration after her return to the track.
"It makes me feel thankful, because I know how much of a fighter she is," Davis said. "I can always count on her to do what she can do and do her best. I've never had to doubt her courage."
Indians ready to defend regional crown
When it comes to postseason competition in cross country, Plainview is certainly no stranger to running with the best.
Or beating them. Plainview has won 16 consecutive regional competitions, and with Davis, Miller and Jessica Woods leading a pack of outstanding racers, things may not be much different in 2012.
"I don't think the kids know how many they've won," Naylor said. "They just want to be good and run their best to win."
Even still, Naylor is too crafty a veteran coach to not remind his talented group of how hard a fall can be.
"I do try to be sure they understand that it's a short trip from the penthouse to the outhouse, and any athletic endeavor is that way," Naylor said. "We coaches try to keep the understanding that on any given day, anybody can do anything spectacular."
There will be some competition looking to spoil things for the top-ranked Indians. State No. 2 Marlow will be on the docket, as well as contenders Lindsay, Lexington and Marietta.
"Of course, this regional is going to be like the state meet with the level of competition there," Naylor said. "I think team-wise it will be a pretty good battle between Marlow and us."
Naylor is also excited about the development of his boys team, paced by Robert Torres and Jackson Daube, especially among the younger runners.
The boys also enter the regional as the team to beat, ranked No. 1 in the state.
"These younger kids have just really developed and gotten better," Naylor said. "They've just worked hard."