What's not to admire about the way Sarah Bennion goes through life?
Her enthusiasm and spirit spill over like too much soda in a glass full of ice. She has the determination of a ram butting heads and the devotion of a pet that greets you at the front door night after night without fail.
She does a great many things and, frankly, does them very well.
She's on not one, but two athletic teams at St. Mary's this fall. She's the No. 2-ranked cross country runner in her division in the state and is a mainstay on a soccer team that was Class 3A/2A/1A runner-up last season and is back, undefeated and rated No. 2 in the Oregon rankings.
Oh, and she's a captain on both teams.
And she carries a 4.0 grade-point average, no mean feat at a school that trots out advanced courses like Mickey D's does fries. She speaks Chinese, for goodness sakes, having taken it for four years. And on road trips, she has a textbook open before the bus even leaves the parking lot, going and coming.
For good measure, she's the student body president.
No wonder soccer coach Dave Potter thoroughly gushed over one of his senior stars in a recent interview. When he reflects on his career, having mentored Bennion will be among the experiences he'll cherish. He ticked off her qualities, including the aforementioned, then added that Bennion is exceedingly humble. You wouldn't know she's a star in so many ways, he says, because she never talks about herself.
Indeed. Until this interview, Potter did not know she was the school president.
"There," he says, emphatically, like someone who is first to spot a shooting star, "that's an example right there. She's got humility all over the place."
It's against this backdrop that an intriguing part of Bennion's story resides.
She ran cross country as a sophomore — joining the team at midseason at the behest of her sister, Mary — and could justifiably be deemed the reason the Crusaders captured the state championship by a single point.
But when last season rolled around, and knowing Bennion would again divide time between soccer and running, cross country coach Joe Volk put it to a team vote as to whether she could participate.
The Crusaders decided against having a part-time teammate who would miss a lot of practices but would take someone's place in meets, particularly the big ones.
"It was not an issue of, 'We don't like her,'" says Volk.
Rather, it was a matter of team unity.
"There are bigger things than where you finish," says Volk. "It was important that the girls felt like it was their call to make."
The team placed second in the district, 10th at state and, says Volk, "They were all fine with that."
Rejection is not something Bennion regularly has to deal with. Her cross country success as a sophomore elevated her interest in running as a junior, but her first order of business was playing on a loaded soccer team that would challenge for a state championship.
"It definitely hurt a little," says Bennion, who didn't run as a freshman and initially turned down an invitation from Volk to join the team as a sophomore. "I thought, 'Man, they don't want me on the team.' It's like you're getting rejected. At the same time, I totally understood where they were coming from."
She stuck to soccer, starting for the first time and helping St. Mary's reach the state title game, where it lost to rival Catlin Gabel, 2-0.
In track the following spring, Bennion excelled once again, winning the 800- and 1,500-meter state championships.
Her affection for distance running grew by giant strides, and she devoted herself to summer training with the cross country team in hopes a favorable vote would come this fall. She strengthened her position with a two-mile time trial of 19 minutes, 56 seconds.
"For the first time out of the gate, that was a good sign for me," says Volk. "She had truly done the work over the summer and was ready to go."
The team voted, and Bennion remembers the text message she got from Volk: "OK, you're in," it said.
She's run in three meets, lowering her time in each. Most recently, she clocked 19:16 at the Concordia/adidas Classic Saturday. Her time is nine seconds off that of state leader Olivia Powell of Creswell and 27 seconds faster than the No. 3 mark.
Were it not for a dinner conversation with older sister Mary two years ago, Sarah might never have taken up cross country.
Mary was a senior leader on a team eyeing the 2009 state title, but when a midseason injury to a teammate occurred, she recruited her sophomore sister.
"We were eating dinner and Mary said, 'Sarah, I bet you could do a time that would help us win state.' I disputed that," says Sarah.
Then Mary went to her sister's weakness. She offered her a Slurpee to run a time trial. Sarah is known as "Popsicle Lover" on the soccer team because she's been known on road trips to buy a 12-pack of the icy treats and eat them all the way home.
After dinner that night, the sisters went to the family's treadmill in the garage and Sarah was challenged to run 5,000 meters in 22 minutes. She did so by a full minute.
After calling Volk with the news, it was off for her prize.
"Pina colada, extra large," laughs Sarah.
And well worth it come the state meet. Mary paced the Crusaders, finishing fourth, and Sarah was next in 11th, helping to secure a 73-74 victory over Catlin Gabel.
Although there are occasional conflicts between soccer matches and cross country meets, there have been no major issues. Bennion has run three of the Crusaders' biggest meets and has been on hand for nearly all of the soccer matches.
If the St. Mary's soccer team can remain undefeated in the District 4 — it plays at Glide at 3 p.m. Saturday — it should eliminate conflicts with district and state cross country.
Potter embraces the idea of athletes competing in multiple sports, even if they're in the same season.
"I would never put her in a position where she had to choose one," he says. "She loves both, and she's successful in both."
He asks only that she listen to her body and is honest about it.
When she felt shin splints developing earlier this week, she asked to play goalkeeper in a soccer match and took a day off from running.
"She has the maturity and intelligence to make the right decision," says Potter. "I can trust her on that."
Ordinarily, Bennion plays on the wing for the Crusaders, who are 5-0 in district play and 10-0-1 overall.
Her speed in long races translates to quickness on the pitch, says Potter. She often makes sliding tackles of the ball to keep it from going out of bounds, and she's frequently in on scoring plays, either with the goal, with an assist or with what Potter calls a "pre-assist" — being in on a play as it develops into a goal.
She has four goals, five assists and six pre-assists.
"When we score, somebody has to get the ball in position," says Potter. "She's just always involved."
Bennion and Anna Thorndike, a goal-scoring machine, are a formidable team. Thorndike can "bend a ball like Beckham," says Potter, and when she does so on corner kicks, Bennion is eager to move in for a header.
Rarely has Potter had a player, boy or girl, who so enjoys heading the ball. When he shows up for practice, Bennion is there in the goal mouth trying to head balls as teammates fire away. Sans teammates, she'll throw it or kick it into the air, then try to head it in.
Defensively, Bennion wreaks havoc on opposing attacks.
"She's lightning in a bottle," says Potter.
Bennion plans to attend Brigham Young University, where her sister goes, and hopes to run for the Cougars. She'd have to fit it in with studies, of course, like English and literature. Oh, and she might dabble in business, perhaps preparing to eventually become a businesswoman in China.
One thing is certain, her plate will seldom be empty.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com