TUSCOLA — The first thing Drew Sterkel did after becoming Tuscola’s girls’ cross-country coach this past fall was sit down with sophomore Kate Foltz and go through their goals for the season. Foltz was an All-State runner the year before as a freshman, and without any seniors on the team, Sterkel turned to her to lead his team.
“We explained how we wanted to have a culture of running, and there’s no better person to do it than her,” Sterkel said. “I threw a lot of the leadership aspects on her as a sophomore because people will follow her. The training part was always big, but my biggest emphasis was creating a legacy that will last so that five or 10 years from now I can say, ‘Kate Foltz was the one who started this.’”
Little did he know what he was getting into. Soon, Sterkel was racking up grocery bills, spending $80 a week on water and snacks just for Foltz.
“He’s always been so generous with that, and I’m very thankful for him,” Foltz said. “There’s a lot that goes into it. I try to help my teammates as much as I can, just bringing a positive vibe and being as much of a leader as I can.”
Now that he’s had almost a month to reflect on the season that Foltz put together this fall, all that money was well worth it for Sterkel.
His young team went through plenty of growing pains, but Foltz took her performance to another level. Her best time as a freshman was 18 minutes, 1 second. As a sophomore, she lowered that personal best to 16:11, nearly a full minute faster than anyone else’s top time in the area. She finished third at the Class 1A state meet, leading her to earning the title of The News-Gazette’s girls’ cross-country Runner of the Year in 2023.
“I call her a once-in-a-lifetime kind of athlete because you just don’t get kids like this,” Sterkel said. “You almost sit back as a spectator and leave the coaching aside because you just love to watch her run. The way she approaches things is amazing. It really, truly is fun and enjoyable, and you get an adrenaline rush watching her compete.”
Foltz started running distance in seventh grade and practiced with the high school cross-country team when she was in eighth grade. She didn’t have many expectations when she joined the team as a freshman, but she set a modest goal for herself to break the 20-minute mark.
After shattering that target, she got right back to work. Not only was Foltz running up to 15 miles at a time in training, but she paid attention to the details. She found a tempo that worked for her, and she monitored what she ate and drank and how she slept.
“I don’t feel like there’s much of a secret. It’s just pushing through the pain and trying to have fun,” Foltz said. “It’s a long season, so enjoying it is a really important thing.”
Foltz is a big believer in using each race as a learning opportunity. As a freshman at state, there were 23 runners who finished ahead of her. On that same stage as a sophomore, that number shrunk to two.
“I just know that there are a lot of people out there, and there are a lot of people who can compete with me,” Foltz said. “Just being ready for that competition and knowing that I’m not the best. There are still people better than me, and I’m working toward getting better so I can be closer to them.”
Another key in that motivation has been the recent success of the Tuscola boys’ cross-country team, which won a state title last month.
Tuscola boys’ coach Neal Garrison called Foltz a “national-caliber athlete in the making,” adding that she’s already consistently running better times than a lot of the boys in the area.
Will Foltz — Kate’s older brother, a Tuscola senior who placed sixth at state this year and will run next school year at Southern Illinois — said he saw early on his sister was capable of this.
“I don’t think she fully realizes what she has accomplished or what she can accomplish,” Will Foltz said. “She’s a competitor, so she’s never satisfied with her results. We could see some amazing results in the next two years to finish out her high school career.”
That’s the question that gets Sterkel excited: How high can Kate Foltz go? She’s only a sophomore, and not only is her personal-best time miles ahead of any area girl, it’s good enough to put her in the top 25 of area boys’ runners.
“That’s kind of crazy to think about. We’ve only seen half of her career,” Sterkel said. “With the work she’s putting in, hopefully she can top that. It’s going to be difficult, but we’re in a good spot because we’ve got some of the best runners in the state of Illinois right here in our backyard, so she’ll be able to see them and compete with them.”
Don’t count Foltz out of that conversation of the best runners in Illinois, and don’t think she’s doing it all for her either. She has another goal now, and that’s taking her teammates to state with her. As far as individual accomplishments go, her mind isn’t there yet. She’s content with taking it slow. The process, that is.
“I don’t think ahead as much as most people would,” Foltz said. “Just keep pushing as hard as I can and trying to give it my all.”