From soccer player to XC runner, AU’s Taylor has perfect season in imperfect 2020

Augusta’s Mackenzie Taylor nears the finish line en route to the Peach Belt Conference championship. (photo by David Troyer, special to the Bell Ringer)

By Carlos Rodriguez |
Sports editor

In a year far from perfect, Augusta University women’s cross-country runner Mackenzie Taylor remained perfect.

With 2020 throwing a bunch of curveballs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody knew what to expect. Despite the challenges occurring over the year, Taylor, a sophomore from Leesburg, Ga., maintained focus and finished up her first-ever cross-country season as a conference champion and went undefeated in the shortened season.

You read that right. It was her first ever cross-country season. Taylor previously played soccer since the age of 4 and played at the college level at Truett McConnell University for two seasons before realizing she wanted to stop and begin a career in running.

“I felt like I had reached my capacity in my level of how far I could go with soccer and I wanted to try something new,” said Taylor.

Throughout her time at Lee County High, she was always told she should try running but wanted to remain committed and give her all to one sport.

Although it was a very big decision, she had a great support cast to make her decision feel right.

“My parents were always both supportive of my decision and wanted me to pursue my goals,” she said, “My college coach was a little hesitant, but he was really accepting and just supported me through it all.”

Training with a former PBC champion

After making the decision, Taylor began training full-time with the help of Brittney Skiles, a former collegiate runner at Columbus State.

“I told Mackenzie when I first started working with her that she could win the conference and region championships and could go on to be an All-American if she stayed healthy and focused,” said Skiles. “She is one of the most driven athletes that I’ve ever coached and has the head for running.”

Skiles, a former Peach Belt Conference champion herself, helped connect Taylor with Adam Ward, AU’s cross-country coach.

“She called me up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this young lady that I think will be a great runner one day, would you be interested in recruiting her,” Ward said.

After a couple of calls and exchanging messages, Taylor came on a visit to Augusta and fell in love after just touring around for an hour.

With no prior experience except local road races in her hometown, going into the season both Taylor and Ward had no expectations for what she would perform like.

“When you haven’t seen anything and you don’t have any results, you don’t understand where someone’s really coming from,” said Ward. “You don’t know what the floor is and what the ceiling is.”

The Jaguars were set for a shortened season due to COVID-19, having three regular season races and finishing off with the conference championship.

Taylor starts XC career with AU record

In Augusta’s first race of the season at the Koala XC Classic, which was also Taylor’s first career race, she broke the 6-kilometer school record, covering the course in a time of 20:36. She dominated the field, winning by a minute and 15 seconds, surprising herself and others. With the performance she also earned her first PBC runner of the week award.

“I was running the last 100 meters, and I look at the clock and the time that it said I was like there’s no way I’m running this time right now,” she said. “It was really humbling but also rewarding to know that all of my hard work had paid off.”

In her second race at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazer Classic, she was challenged by Samford University’s McKenzie Hogue, but again became victorious, earning her second career win by 15 seconds and finishing the 6k in 21:10. With her performance she earned her second PBC runner of the week.

“After seeing my results in the first two meets, I started to gain a little confidence and truly believed that winning conference was actually attainable,” said Taylor.

In the final regular season meet at the University of North Georgia PBC Preview she made more history, winning the 5k in 17:05, breaking another school record and also setting the course record. She won by a minute and 13 seconds. With this performance she earned her third PBC runner of the week award.

PBC champ and national runner of the week

Two weeks later, on Nov. 14, again at UNG, Taylor ran in the Peach Belt Conference Championship. She successfully completed the undefeated season, running a 17:07 5K and winning by 54 seconds. Both her time and winning margin set PBC records.

“I felt a lot of emotions crossing the line. It all seemed to come together finally and in that moment I just felt grateful,” said Taylor.

Days after she was crowned PBC Champion, she was named the NCAA Division II Women’s National Runner of the Week by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). Taylor became the first woman in Peach Belt Conference history to earn the award and also the first Augusta University runner to earn it.

“I totally didn’t expect it,” she said, “I can’t believe that I am being recognized on different levels and it feels amazing.”

In a normal year the season wouldn’t end after the conference championship. Instead after conference the team would go to the Southeast Regionals where teams and individuals try to qualify for the national championship. After such a successful season, it would’ve been no surprise if Taylor qualified for nationals and wound up being an All-American.

If you ask anyone about Taylor, they will tell you she’s a hard worker which has led her to be so successful.

“She has an incredible work ethic and sometimes will push too hard, so I had to watch her,” said Skiles. “It’s rare to find an athlete who is willing to do all the of the extra things required to be a champion.”

Throughout the season, Ward has gotten questions from other coaches wondering where this rare talent came from.

“There’s a few that are like where did she run in high school? I’m like she didn’t,” he said, “I think the fact when people start to find out her background a little bit, it is a little strange cause it isn’t the usual path. Usually, people leave soccer in high school and go to cross-country not in college.”

After reflecting on her perfect season, it’s allowed her to revisit the past.

“I regret not starting cross-country sooner,” she said, “I’m appreciative of what soccer taught me with teamwork and hard work but I know now that cross-country was the sport that was made for me.”

Now Mackenzie heads into her training block to prepare for the upcoming track season as she looks to continue her success on the oval.

 

Contact Carlos Rodriguez at carlosjr521@gmail.com.