Those within the Sidney High School cross country program knew what they were getting when Ryleigh Kleinke joined the high school team this year, but she’s already exceeded expectations this season.
“It happened faster than I thought. I was thinking maybe by the end of the season, and she hit it right away; so I think it happened sooner than I was expecting,” said Sidney head coach Justin Collins.
The “it” Collins mentions is breaking the SHS girl’s cross country record three times, a big part of the freshman’s early start on her campaign to establish herself as a top contender in the state.
Kleinke herself said she started cross country in fifth grade, but Collins had an idea of her potential half a decade before that.
“She’s a year older than my oldest son, so they were friends. She came over for a birthday party when they were five, and they were chasing me around in the backyard and she was already faster than me,” Collins laughed. “I’ve known this was coming for a long time, so I can’t say I’m surprised.”
What makes Kleinke so good, though? Collins said it’s sort of a package deal— she has the talent, she has the work ethic and she has the passion and drive to do well.
Kleinke said part of her drive comes from the idea of continually setting a personal record and getting better. She added that she also has a great support cast in her family and team.
Her work ethic shows day-in and day-out, as she pushes herself to get better every day, she said.
That hard work has already paid off, and while Collins was expecting Kleinke to set a school record at some point, she said she didn’t realize she was about to initially.
“Everyone on my team was really supportive. They were cheering me on when I first broke it, like, ‘You got to get the record Ryleigh,’ so I was going, and it was pretty fun,” Kleinke said. “I can’t wait to see how I do later, like through my senior year and everything.”
Now that she has broken those records, finding the words to describe the feeling was hard to do.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, laughing. “It’s crazy honestly.”
Kleinke’s performances this season have already cemented her status as a runner to look out for, and being a freshman, she said the whole idea is nerve-racking.
“One of my teammates pointed out, ‘Ryleigh how does it feel to know that there are seniors and juniors out there that are worried about you?’ It’s weird, honestly,” she said.
Nerves aside, Kleinke’s energy and success is what will benefit her and help her team in the postseason.
Ultimately, she said she’s excited for the postseason meets and she’s especially excited to see how far her team can push themselves and where they finish in the end (Divisional is on October 15 and State is on October 23).
On a personal level, though, Kleinke said she is hoping to place in the top 10 at State, or even the top five.
Of course, Collins said he fully believes Kleinke can achieve that mark. However, he went even further and said Kleinke could get to the very top of the ranks.
“If everything goes right and she runs a perfect race, she could be No. 1,” he said. “There’s some really tough girls, so I think it’s a tall task, but it is not unthinkable.”
To place at state, a runner has to finish in the top 15, so should Kleinke finish there, it would be special for the team because Collins said there hasn’t been a state placer in awhile for Sidney.
“Anything in there, I would be ecstatic about,” he added.
So far this season, aside from the school records, Kleinke has also racked up some good individual finishes.
To open the season, she placed first in the junior varsity competition, and her best finish was a second place finish at the Sidney Invitational last weekend. In-between those races, Kleinke has twice placed in the top 10 among Williston runners (who just won the West Region Championship in North Dakota) and other top North Dakota runners.
Kleinke has already established herself as a force in cross country, and a good postseason finish would cap off a terrific freshman year for the Sidney star.