Sophomore Joelle Zuberi had hoped to contribute to the Canal Winchester High School girls cross country team a year ago after being one of the top runners for the Indians' middle school program as a seventh- and eighth-grader.
But after feeling increasingly weaker over the course of the summer and running slower times than usual in her first two varsity meets, she underwent a medical exam and was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia.
"When I went on runs last summer, I felt like my legs had 200-pound bags of sand on each of them and my shins hurt," Zuberi said. "I just thought I was out of shape, so I ran more, and the more I ran, the worse I felt."
Determined to resume her athletic career, Zuberi took iron supplement pills three times a day for two months and drastically changed her diet. She returned to competition last spring and developed into the top 3,200-meter runner on Canal Winchester's girls track and field team.
It didn't take long for her to establish herself as the Indians' No. 1 cross country runner this season.
"I learned that I had a slight eating disorder and that I wasn't eating enough meat, and I learned the importance of getting the right amount of meat, fruits and vegetables into my body," Zuberi said. "I used to eat only three meals a day, and now I eat five to six meals a day.
"Once I increased the iron in my body, I started feeling stronger. And once I started running again, it felt amazing. I actually look at what happened my freshman year as a positive instead of a negative because it's made me appreciate every chance I get to run."
Zuberi was the Indians' top finisher in each of their first three meets. She placed 15th (20 minutes, 21.69 seconds) of 282 runners in the 15-team Finishtiming Classic on Aug. 24 at Wilmington College, 10th (20:56) of 197 runners in the 18-team Canal Winchester Invitational on Aug. 28 and 99th (21:12.11) of 242 runners in the 28-team Mason Invitational on Sept. 7.
The Indians finished fifth in the Finishtiming Classic, third (98) in their home meet and 23rd in the Mason Invitational.
"Joelle is one of the most likeable kids in our school and she's one of the most positive people I've ever met," said assistant coach Jeff Kline, who is in his 14th season with the program. "Last fall, she told me she was going to get better and have an amazing sophomore year, and that's what she's doing. I had confidence in her, but I've been surprised that she's moved up this far this quickly. She ran a seven-and-a-half-minute (personal record) in her first race of the season, and she's continued running well on tougher courses in warmer weather."
Zuberi still is adjusting to competing at the varsity level and being the Indians' No. 1 runner, especially given the fact that she said she typically was the No. 3 or 4 runner on the middle school team.
Sophomore Chloe Palmer was No. 1 runner last year but has yet to compete this season because of a foot injury.
"It's hard to transition into running fast for three miles after you're used to doing it for only two miles (in middle school meets)," Zuberi said. "I could barely run a mile at this point last year and now I'm doing nine-mile runs to train for my races.
"I'm also having a hard time coping with being our leading runner. When Chloe got injured, I knew I had to step up more, and I'm doing my best to be a leader. I didn't run as well in my last two races, but it was extremely hot at Mason and I'm hoping to redeem myself as the weather cools back down."
Zuberi is hoping to have a prep career similar to that of 2012 graduate Kayla Scott, who overcame a number of physical setbacks to become the most successful runner in program history.
As a senior, Scott set the program record (18:04.8), placed first at regional (18:49) and finished seventh at state (18:20.77) to become the program's first runner to earn Division I all-state honors.
"Kayla Scott is my main role model because we went through similar things as freshmen and I'd love to be like her and become an amazing state-level runner someday," Zuberi said. "This season, my focus is doing what I can to help my team.
"I'm just grateful that I'm able to run this way after missing most of last season. Now I see what happened as a blessing in disguise because it's given me more passion for running and I've learned to run with a lot more heart."
Runners preparing for Newark meet
The boys and girls cross country teams will compete Saturday, Sept. 14, in the Newark Invitational.
On Sept. 7, the boys team finished 26th (667 points) in the 30-team Mason Invitational behind champion Mason (59).
Jason Appel led the Indians, finishing 105th (18:11.58). Bryce Carroll (107th, 18:12.54) was next, followed by Ethan Fusek (155th, 18:40.54), Luke Schirr (175th, 18:56.55) and Nick Sweeney (201st, 19:16.58).
The girls team finished 23rd (604) in the event as Carmel (Ind.) won with 50 points.
Cassidy Long (106th, 21:15.89) was the Indians' second-highest finisher behind Zuberi, followed by Megan Tamasovich (135th, 21:51.65), Ashley Clubb (151st, 22:01.69) and Julia Cook (175th, 22:28.15).
Football team still seeking first win
The football team enters its home game against Lancaster on Friday, Sept. 13, looking for its first victory.
The Indians dropped to 0-2 with a 23-7 loss to Delaware on Sept. 6. That same night, Lancaster lost to Liberty Township Lakota East 41-0 to fall to 1-1.
Canal Winchester is looking to spark its spread offense after losing quarterback Zach Bontempo to a season-ending collarbone injury in the first quarter of its 41-6 loss to Olentangy in its opener Aug. 30.
Starting cornerback William Totten replaced Bontempo against Olentangy and was 4-for-9 passing for 48 yards and rushed for 57 yards on 14 carries. He scored the Indians' only touchdown on a 100-yard interception return.
Nick Hammond started at quarterback against Delaware, passing for 121 yards, including 58-yard touchdown to wide receiver Skyler Scott.
Lancaster surrendered six rushing touchdowns to Lakota East. The Golden Gales' defense, which is led by linemen Kawai Moku and Kyle Trout and linebacker Isaiah Dexter, fared much better in a 57-7 victory over Logan on Aug. 30, giving up just one passing touchdown.
Against Logan, Lancaster's wing-T offense was led by running back Jared Thompson, who finished with 127 total yards, including 103 rushing, and scored three touchdowns. He ran for two scores and caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Alex Butsko.
Dexter recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for another touchdown against Logan.
Lancaster's offensive line is anchored by Trout, an Ohio State recruit.
The Indians, whose defense is led by four returning starters in Totten, free safety Khari Golden and linebackers Lamont Martin and Scott, have allowed a running back to rush for more than 100 yards in each of its first two games.
Olentangy's Hunter Hayden ran for 115 yards on 11 carries and Delaware's Jante Wright rushed for 144 yards and three touchdowns.