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Light flurries fluttered to the asphalt on Wednesday as members of the Kelly Walsh cross-country team turned the corner around the pool building toward what coaches referred to as “Trojan Way.” Out in front was a slight freshmen, who joined her teammates in shedding layers as their temperatures rose in the nagging cold. Her lead shrank through the incline but remained across the finish line.

Following a brief reprieve, the Trojans ran another loop. Same leader. Then again, same result.

Finley Klinger finished first in all those sprints. She almost always does.

A stampede of feet followed Klinger’s closely at the finish line, kicking up specks of water from the already melting snow. Her teammates, who have improved their times in the most recent weeks, finished just behind.

They walked back up the stairs and toward the starting line together. Another lap remained.

Klinger stood front and center along the improvised starting line and waited for the coaches’ signal. Whether during warm-up laps around the track or jaunts to nearby Huber Park, Klinger typically either runs alongside the other girls on the team or in the first pack of boys.

“She’ll be the best distance runner at this school,” Kelly Walsh cross-country coach Bryan Coventry said as Klinger walked toward the school after the Wednesday workout.

Her potential has appeared limitless — a young freshman who placed sixth in her first varsity race among the toughest of competition. But her future in cross-country may be handcuffed to another love of hers. Tennis.

Klinger has excelled at both cross-country and tennis for the Trojans. She went undefeated in No. 1 singles until losing in the state semifinals. She’s been a welcome addition to the cross-country team. The decision to do both, however stressful, has since been welcomed by both coaches. No matter what chaos has ensued, they’ve realized having her on the team is better than not.

On the court

Buddy Johnson started coaching Kelly Walsh’s tennis team eight years ago. He remembers seeing a little girl, he estimated about 4 or 5 years old, playing at Casper Country Club that first season. Every day he’d return for another practice and watch the same young girl returning volleys.

“Who is this little kid?” Johnson remembered wondering.

He never watched her play a full match back then. But he knew that she could be something special some day.

It was another two years until Johnson finally watched Finley Klinger on the court. By that time she had refocused her talents in order to take tennis more seriously. Johnson arrived at the courts early and noticed her playing, so he dedicated the time to watch. She had to have been in sixth grade, he thought, and she’s already breaking the mold.

“She seemed to be able to work to point that you see some high school kids do,” Johnson said. “She knows, even then, how to work the point, know when to go for shots and when to not.”

Klinger beat everyone her age. So she played against older girls. She beat them too.

She was a prodigy, a folk story among the Country Club denizens. And then came high school.

Off the court

Klinger realized she needed to participate in extracurricular activities when she began sixth grade. She was small, even by comparison among her peers, and had no interest in volleyball. So she opted to run.

He speed surprised even the teachers during physical education classes at Centennial Middle School. She started running on Centennial’s cross-country team and immediately set school records in the 3K races.

Coventry and his fellow coaches were aware of Klinger at that time. Word about a special runner at Centennial traveled back to them through the running community of Casper.

“She’s definitely been on our radar because she was such a fabulous cross-country runner in middle school,” Coventry said. “And so we were licking our chops, so to speak, hoping she would run for the Trojans.”

Klinger graduated from Centennial on the honor roll with multiple meet records. Casper had never seen a runner like her at that age. And then came high school.

Dual athlete

Typically, the most difficult decision for incoming high school freshmen in Casper is which high school to attend. Most have either carved out their interests beforehand or are waiting for an epiphany. Not Finley Klinger. She knew she wanted to go to Kelly Walsh. Her decision became which sport she’d commit to.

She wanted to continue pursuing both of her main interests: tennis and distance running. The problem was that tennis and cross-country are both fall sports.

Klinger’s parents, coaches and the administration looked for a solution.

Wyoming High School Activities Association guidelines state that a student cannot participate in multiple athletics at once. They can compete in multiple activities along with athletics (drama, speech and basketball at the same time, for example), but two sports simultaneously has been forbidden. However, if one sport’s season ends while the other’s continues, a student can participate in both.

Kelly Walsh activities director AJ Nathan alerted Coventry to that rule. Then Nathan met with new principal Mike Britt. They passed along word to everyone else.

That was a relief to both coaches.

Through hearsay Johnson heard Klinger would be going to Kelly Walsh. He also heard a rumor she would run cross-country for the entire season. Coventry hadn’t been aware of Klinger’s passion for tennis. He was taken aback when he discovered she started on the tennis team in early August.

“We were confident that when she came here she would do cross-country,” Coventry said. “And then when she decided to do tennis it kind of threw us for a loop a little bit.”

The coaches saw both sides of the equation. Welcoming a student only in the final few weeks of the season didn’t seem fair to the other students who slogged through weeks of practice before. But neither did taking away an opportunity from an impressionable student.

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“It’s wrong to take that away from her,” Johnson said. “And what if she has an opportunity to get a scholarship in cross-country three years from now?”

Klinger simply wanted to continue doing what she loved all along. And, when pressed for an answer, she could never choose between them.

“I kind of found a love for both of them so much that I couldn’t choose between them,” she said. “When I learned it was a possibility to do both, that’s when I was really hoping I could do that.”

So she became a dual-threat Trojan.

Just short

Finley Klinger led Gillette’s Alli Hays 5-2 in the first set of the state semifinal match at No. 1 singles in Gillette three weeks ago. No one had beaten Klinger up to that point and no match was remotely competitive. Then Hays rallied. Hays won five straight games to upset Klinger and win the first set 7-5.

In typical fighting fashion, Klinger rallied to win the second set 6-2. That forced a decisive third set. A season’s worth of work led to that point. All the practices and countless volleys.

Hays held on to win 6-4 to advance to the state championship. Klinger was relegated to the third-place match.

“Great match by Finley, that could have gone either way,” Johnson said. “You take Finley two years from now and she wins that in straight sets.”

Klinger beat Cody’s Tessa Blough, who was undefeated before Klinger won the regular-season meeting in the conference finale, for third. She finished her freshman season in tennis with one loss and a bronze medal.

While some may have been disappointed to enter the state tournament undefeated only to leave with third, the freshman took her finish in stride.

“Third place is still great,” she said. “I worked as hard as I could, I gave it everything I had. That was just really good and she was better than me. I gave it everything so I can’t really be disappointed.”

Strong start

The starting gun sounded at the massive Cheyenne Invitational last weekend and the pack of varsity girls hustled forward. Rawlins sophomore phenom Sydney Thorvaldson, who has yet to be beaten in an in-state meet, took an early lead. Alongside her, however, matching the sophomore stride-for-stride, was Finley Klinger.

Klinger won the junior varsity race in Sturgis, South Dakota, the week before by multiple minutes and she was unmatched in middle school. She’d never raced against someone who she didn’t think she could beat. Then, about three-fourths into the first mile, Klinger fell back. She was in pain. She didn’t account for the change to a 5K high school race.

“I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know how to go since it was my first varsity meet,” Klinger said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that long because the middle school ones weren’t as long. I wasn’t expecting that but it was a lot of fun.”

Klinger fell in line with the next pack and maintained speed alongside them. Established runners, some with gold medals, like Cheyenne Central’s Claudia Miller, Cheyenne East’s Mackenzie Marler and Natrona County’s Avery Potter, were all within reach. Klinger finished sixth in her first varsity race with a time of 19 minutes, 52.43 seconds.

Klinger had been on the team less than two weeks at that point. Coventry was excited.

Because coaches aren’t supposed to interfere with students when they’re participating in other sports, Coventry had no communication with Klinger during tennis season. She stayed in shape for cross-country by running miles after tennis practice. So the Monday after she took third at the state tennis tournament she joined cross-country practice.

“First day of practice she had definitely shown, and we knew that we were onto something,” Coventry said. “We knew something special was about to happen.

“And she was accepted by everybody. Everybody knew she was coming in and it really has lifted our girls’ team. They are running better, they’re running faster and she has been, in a sense, a leader.”

The Trojans finished fourth at the Cheyenne Invitational. Teammate Emma Realing finished just shy of a personal record while the rest of the Trojans moved forward with improvements. Considering their competition, it was the best finish of the season for the Kelly Walsh girls.

“Most of them are really nice and really supportive,” Klinger said of her teammates. “I really like them.”

Just like Johnson, Coventry was afraid of how the team would gel with a standout freshmen. And just like with tennis, her teammates welcomed her with open arms and took her results as inspiration. They too had worked through tough conditions, endured stressful practices to find themselves overshadowed by runners from other schools. Now they had someone to emulate every day in practice and someone who could show them, that with all their work, they could reach the next level.

“We have a senior girl and some other girls that have worked so hard over the summer and so hard during the season that I was a little scared to see how this would work,” Coventry said. “Now I’m not afraid of anything.”

Go, go, go

Johnson has occasionally used Klinger as a tennis comparison for his son, who is now 13 years old — about 2 years older than Klinger was when Johnson first paid close attention. The Trojans’ head coach would point to her work ethic, focus and devotion to the sport.

And since the late September weather turned, Johnson has taken his son to the Wyoming Athletic Club. The gym has typically hosted a tennis drop from 4-5 p.m. in the middle of the week. Multiple times since the season ended, Johnson has spotted Klinger in after 5 p.m., hitting off the ball machine. She had to have just come from cross-country practice, he thought. He knew better than to be surprised.

“That’s just her,” Johnson said. “That’s just go, go, go and her resolve to be the best. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won state in tennis and cross-country later down the line.”

Klinger kept completing the laps at Wednesday’s soggy practice in front of her teammates. The other Trojans gained closer with each lap. The sun poked out, giving the runners hope of better conditions.

She’s been a welcomed addition to a young cross-country team that’s sought an identity all season. They’ve now gotten close to one, with the regional meet this weekend.

Plans for the winter and spring season aren’t set in stone. And as long as the current rule exists, Klinger plans to do both tennis and cross-country all four years of high school.

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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