Tennison charges to top of county

The picture that hangs on the wall of Paige Tennison's bedroom is nothing special.

Tennison said she doesn't really care for the art, which came with the house when her family bought it.

"It's a picture of a moped or something," the Newport Harbor High junior said. "It's super-random."

Tennison has turned it into a positive. It's now what she calls her "vision board." On top of the picture she tapes pieces of paper, representing things that she wants in life.

Earlier this year, she put up a time of 17 minutes, 44 seconds on her vision board. At the Laguna Hills Invitational, she ran a 17:43.

Before the Orange County Cross Country Championships, Tennison put a time of 16:58 on the vision board.

Tennison again almost exactly matched the time Oct. 15 at Irvine Regional Park. She finished the three-mile girls' sweepstakes race in 16:59, coming from behind to win first place by 16 seconds.

The visions Tennison had as she crossed the finish line made her smile. She looked at her wristwatch and saw that she had finished under 17 minutes, just the fifth girl to do so since the modern course was established in 1999.

She then looked ahead and saw her mother, Maribeth, leaping up and down in jubilation.

"I was really excited," said Paige Tennison, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week. "I never thought I would be there. Freshman year, I thought that was insane and impossible. no one should be able to do that."

Tennison has now done it after passing Marina senior Laura Hollander down the stretch. She has run just three races this year after battling sickness early in the year, but each has been big.

At Laguna Hills it was a breakthrough for Tennison, who was the Sailors' top runner (17th) last year at Sunset League finals but did not advance to the CIF Southern Section Division II preliminaries. She won the Division II race and was second-fastest among all runners.

She finished fifth in the girls' sweepstakes race at the Clovis Invitational on Oct. 8, crossing the line in 18:06 despite falling twice. She still has the scrapes along the right side of her body to prove it.

Tennison's win at the O.C. Championships made her just the third Newport Harbor runner to win the sweepstakes race, the first since Whitney Blue in 2004.

Performances like these led Sailors Coach Eric Tweit to use terms like "elite" runner when describing Tennison, who also had a strong track season last spring.

"She just has an innate ability," Tweit said. "A lot of it doesn't have anything to do with coaching … she has very little wasted motion. She's very fluid. It's a real simple running style, and it's natural for her."

Mention the word "elite" to Tennison, and it's one that's still not quite in her vocabulary.

"I don't think it's really hit me yet, until right now," she said. "I thought I was fast last year. I'm looking at my times, and I'm improving by like a minute and a half on each of these races, almost two minutes. Last year I was No. 2 runner [on Newport Harbor] and I thought I was really fast."

She said her top time from her sophomore year was an 18:45, also at the O.C. Championships. Now she's nearly two minutes faster, but it's still sinking in.

"I don't think of myself as one of the super-gnarly runners yet," Tennison said. "Whenever my mom is talking about these people, she'll be like, 'Yeah, she ran a 16:30.' And I'm like, 'That's insane. She's such a great runner!'

"And then my mom will be like, 'So are you!'"

She has emerged as a leader for the Sailors, who still have bigger races to come. They race at Mt. San Antonio College on Saturday, then have league finals on Oct. 29. There they'll need to finish top three as a team to advance to Division II preliminaries, and Tweit and Tennison both want the whole team to be along for the ride.

"I love my team," Tennison said. "They're my best friends right now, and I feel like we've grown really close this year. We've all been training harder and pushing ourselves more, from summer. I think [senior] Makenna [Owen], our captain, is doing a really good job to motivate us to do better. I know she's helped me a lot."

Motivation comes from many places for Tennison, who will likely be writing lower and lower numbers on those slips of paper in the coming weeks.

Don't be surprised if she keeps hitting those times, either.

Her vision is strong.

*

Paige Tennison

Born: Sept. 11, 1994

Hometown: Newport Beach

Height: 5-foot-5

Sport: Cross country

Coach: Eric Tweit

Favorite food: Zucchini walnut muffin at Hautt Cakes

Favorite movie: "Finding Nemo"

Favorite athletic moment: Winning the sweepstakes race at the O.C. Championships.

Week in review: Tennison won the girls' sweepstakes race Oct. 15 at the Orange County Championships, finishing the three-mile course at Irvine Regional Park in 16 minutes, 59 seconds.

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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