MARQUETTE - Two years ago, Mallory Celaya was a trainer for the Mt. San Antonio College cross country team, attending her first year of college close to her hometown of North Hollywood, Calif.
Today, the 22-year old Celaya is a junior member of the Northern Michigan University cross country team, 2,300 miles from home and, in her last two races, leading the Wildcats' effort.
A big change to make as a freshman in college, no?
Celaya made the decision to move to Marquette after the now retired NMU head track and field coach Tom Barnes began speaking to her at a Mt. SAC race, where she was working as an athletic trainer. After getting her information and interest, Barnes returned to Marquette and spoke with the women's cross country coach Jenny Ryan. Not long after, Ryan had sparked an interest in Celaya and offered to host her on a trip to Marquette.
"We took her on an official visit, showed her the area and kind of gave her the Marquette tour," Ryan said. "The neat thing about it is that she's from California so she had never really been in a cold area. But she has an adventurous spirit and likes the outdoors so when she got here, she just loved it and decided to come (to Northern the next season).
Celaya herself had come to the Upper Peninsula with little knowledge of the area or culture, and also didn't know a single person, save for Ryan and Barnes.
"The area, it's beautiful," Celaya said. "There are so many trees compared to where I come from in California. I love the fact that it's a small town and a big cultural difference. It's so small, so laid back and you can do so many things outside that you can't really do in California without driving for an hour or two.
"I feel like I adapted well to it. I took on this experience telling myself there are going to be differences, but these are good things. I took it as 'whoa, that is so awesome' instead of being stressed out about it."
Given the choice between attending Arizona State University or NMU, Celaya felt more of a pull towards the cold climate versus the heat of Arizona, and moved to Marquette for the fall 2011 cross-country season.
"She had some back luck (to start the season), with a knee problem that started almost right away," Ryan said. "She came to preseason and it started bothering her so we kept her out the first few meets hoping we'd get her in later."
After missing the first half of the season, however, Ryan figured the best choice was to redshirt Celaya for the fall, giving her five more semesters to race.
"In the long run it worked out better, but it was a little disappointing for her to come all that way (and not race her first season)," Ryan said.
Celaya said that while she was pretty disappointed that her first season was interrupted by a knee injury, she remained adamant in physical therapy and was healthy by the spring track season for her events in the steeplechase, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters.
"The whole time she stayed positive," Ryan said. "I saw her get kind of depressed only one time last fall.
"At first it was hard for her to get involved in the group because she wasn't racing, but finally bonded with the team and especially this year now, she's bonded with the team and taken a leadership role in the team and has improved."
Celaya has finished first for the Wildcats in her last two appearances, with a personal record of 22 minutes, 52 seconds in Eau Claire, Wis.
"I want to, as far as my personal goals, get to 21 minutes for a 6K," she said of the remainder of the season s goals. "As a team I really want to go to nationals. We have a really strong team to go to nationals this year. I strongly feel we have a shot."
Ryan agreed on this point, more so than in past seasons. Having lost only two seniors from last year's team and running a top-10 of primarily underclassmen, Ryan attributes the team's success so far this season to their depth.
"Eight of the top 10 are back from last year," Ryan said. "Eight runners have placed in the top five of the group. Mallory and Mandy (Dye) have been the top two runners, but the rest of the group is right there and then I have a whole other group that s right behind them."
Taking first in their two opening meets this season - the Michigan Tech Opener and Midwest Collegiate Open - the Wildcats have since placed sixth out of 17 and ninth out of 38 in their past two weekends of racing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugold Invite and the Roy Griak Invite, respectively.
Placing 25th in the Blugold invite and 28th in the Roy Griak, Celaya has paced the 'Cats, typically just seconds in front of fellow junior Dye.
NMU has one more meet while it continues to prepare for the postseason, this time at home Friday at the NMU Golf Course, starting at 4 p.m.