After a strong prep career in running, Emily Richards left Delaware Hayes High School and headed to Ohio Northern University, where she felt at home academically and continued to progress on the women’s track and cross country teams.

“At that time, I thought if I can’t handle the running, that was OK because I wanted a good education,” the 2014 Delaware graduate said. “That’s the reason I (went to Ohio Northern). My times coming out of Delaware were not Division I-caliber times.”

A lot has changed in four years. Richards, who graduated from Ohio Northern last month, now plans to run professionally.

Her times on the track have dropped significantly after she found her niche with the 800 meters in 2016. Her favorite race in high school was the 400.

“She had good speed as a freshman and her cross country season went well,” said Jason Maus, who coaches both sports at Ohio Northern. “I told her she should think about middle distance. I put it in her court and didn’t try to force things. A few weeks later, she told me she wanted to move up (to the 800). Then she truly bought into it.”

Richards’ résumé includes numerous highlights, including running the fastest time in NCAA Division III history in the 800 (2 minutes, .62 seconds) last year. This spring, her top time of 2:00.67 ranks fifth in the nation and 18th in the world among all college and professional runners, according to USA Track & Field.

Richards recently was named the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Division III Female National Track Athlete of the Year after winning titles in the 800 (meet-record 2:04.22) and 1,500 (4:25.08) at the Division III Outdoor Championships held May 24-26 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She also was one of 11 finalists for the 2018 Division III Honda Athlete of the Year, an award for all women’s sports.

She finished her collegiate career as a nine-time NCAA Division III champion and a 13-time All-American in indoor and outdoor track.

“I’m planning to compete professionally,” Richards said. “It’s in the works in the next month or so. The first thing I need to do is find an agent who can help me get a shoe contract to fund my career or join a team that already is affiliated with a shoe company. Most professionals also have a part-time job so they can be well-rounded and give them something else to focus on other than just running. So I’ll be exploring those options soon.”

Right now, Richards’ focus is on preparing to compete in the 800 in the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which runs Thursday, June 21, through June 24 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her event is scheduled for 2:20 p.m. June 21.

“There are very few Division III athletes who make it to the (USA Outdoor) Championships,” Maus said. “She’s just so competitive and has that ‘it’ factor. Whatever ‘it’ is, she’s got ‘it.’ She’s also so easy to work with. She’s humble, polite, motivated and driven. She’s just a fantastic young woman.”

“I made the finals (in the USA Outdoor Championships) last year and placed eighth and the top three went on to the World Championships,” Richards said. “There are only two collegians in the field. Unfortunately, because there are no World Championships again until 2019 and the Olympics aren’t until 2020, finishing in the top three doesn’t get you on the national team, per se, this year.”

The USA Outdoor Champion-ships provides another opportunity for Richards to prove herself on a national stage, thus enhancing her prospects of running professionally.

“Competing against some of the top runners in the nation and coming out of Division III does definitely push me,” she said. “Anytime you get a chance to make a name for yourself and show the Division I runners that you can compete right with them, it’s fun.

“Hopefully, I’m competing for all of the athletes in Division III whenever I race. All of the coaches at Ohio Northern helped me get where I am today. I didn’t have these times in high school, but now I do. Small schools may not have the same resources or perks, but hard work is hard work. I’m thankful that Ohio Northern got me into some bigger races where I could compete against girls from larger schools. I love that underdog role and being able to defy the odds.”

According to Maus, what makes Richards even more special is the fact that she cares just as much about her teammates as she does herself.

“She is a team-first athlete,” Maus said. “We were at the NCAA Division III national indoor championships (March 9 and 10) in Birmingham (Alabama) and she knew we had a chance to get a trophy, which we have never done before. She won the 800 and the mile and she agreed to stretch it out and compete in the 3,000 for the team the next day. She finished third and that was enough for us to finish third as a team.

“It’s something we may never do again. It was really special for the program and the university and she enabled us to do that. She’s broken the Division III record in the 800 and is running world class times and yet she was willing to do whatever it takes for us.”

bemerine@thisweeknews.com

@Brad_ThisWeek