Woodland High senior McKenna Trapheagen signed to run cross country, indoor track and outdoor track at Georgia Tech. On hand for the signing were, from left, front row: Sheri Trapheagen, mother; and Alec Trapheagen, father; back row: Rob Forbes, WHS cross country coach; John Howard, WHS athletic director: David Stephenson, WHS principal; and Catherine Bollwerk, WHS cross country coach. Randy Parker/The Daily Tribune News
BY NICHOLAS SULLIVAN
When the Woodland girls cross country team won a state championship in 2016, McKenna Trapheagen placed fourth on the Wildcats and 19th overall with a time of 21 minutes, 20.32 seconds. It was a pretty great showing for a then-freshman, but Trapheagen was only scratching the surface of what would become one of the most remarkable high school careers by a Bartow County athlete in recent memory.
Trapheagen would wind up winning four total cross country state championships — two individual and two team titles — in her four years with Woodland. Her incredible achievements led to Trapheagen having her pick of several different major college programs, and she decided to recently sign with nearby Georgia Tech.
“I can’t wait, I’m so excited,” Trapheagen said of becoming a Yellow Jacket. “I’m really looking forward to being coached by coach [Alan] Drosky and coach [Becky] Megesi. I’m excited to see how fast I really can get, because they’ve proved that their girls get very fast very quick under their program.”
Getting to learn under Drosky and Megesi was a huge draw for Trapheagen, who will run outdoor and indoor track for Georgia Tech in addition to cross country. Drosky has been the Jackets’ head cross country coach since 1992 and added head women’s track coach to his duties four years later. Megesi ran at Georgia Tech under Drosky and has been an assistant coach for 18 years.
“It’s such a rare thing in college athletics to see coaches stick around for that long,” Trapheagen said. “I wanted to go to a program where I knew the coaches were truly invested. To see that they’ve had such an influence and such an impact at Georgia Tech for such a long time proved that to me.”
Despite being friends with several other Georgia Tech recruits, Trapheagen admitted she initially had no interest in attending the Atlanta-based institution.
“Before I even visited the campus, I didn’t really give it much thought,” Trapheagen said. “I assumed it was a little too close to the city, it wouldn’t feel like a college campus. But the instant I got there, I just fell in love with it. It felt like it was tucked away in its own little world away from the rest of Atlanta.”
Georgia Tech was scheduled to be the middle of Trapheagen’s five official visits. She made trips to the University of Tennessee and Kennesaw State before the meeting in Atlanta, with visits set with Mercer and the University of Georgia in the following weeks. But after visiting the Jackets and getting to meet the coaches and athletes, Trapheagen made the call to cancel her two remaining visits.
She had found her next home.
“Originally, University of Tennessee was my dream school,” Trapheagen said. “I wanted to go there, and I was dead set on either UT or UGA. I wanted to give Georgia Tech a shot.
“When coach Drosky first reached out to me, I expressed that I was a little apprehensive and didn’t know if Georgia Tech would be the right fit. He was persistent and kept contacting me to do an official visit. I’m really glad that he did, because I’m definitely confident that I’m making the right choice.”
By the time she had helped Woodland win that inaugural state title back in 2016, Trapheagen had already thought her future plans would include competing at the collegiate level. But even she never considered the possibility of being able to sign with an ACC program.
“Freshman year, I knew I wanted to run in college,” Trapheagen said. “I never imagined it could be at a Division-I level at a school like Georgia Tech, where they have such a great program. Freshman and sophomore years, I was a decent runner, and I loved the sport. I knew I could take it to the next level. I didn’t really think it could be to this degree.
“Junior year, when my time started dropping and the training got a little more rigorous, I realized I’ve been given this talent and this gift, and I could really take it somewhere. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years, and it’s paid off.”
Although Woodland finished runner-up to McIntosh in 2017, Trapheagen cut nearly a minute off her time at the state meet, completing the Carrollton course with a time of 20:33.55. That placed her third on the team and 16th overall. It was, again, a terrific performance, but nobody could have predicted what would happen the next year.
Trapheagen opened her junior season with a hugely impressive win at the Ridge Ferry Invitational, taking first place by more than 25 seconds. She consistently cut huge chunks off her time throughout the fall. While individuals from around Georgia perhaps began to question Trapheagen’s state-title chances, those closest to her knew she had the mental and physical ability to accomplish the goal.
“Her mindset just became very different than a lot of the other high school runners that you see,” said Woodland girls cross country coach Catherine Bollwerk, who only coached Trapheagen her senior season but has trained with her since eighth grade. “She didn’t want to just make little improvements anymore. She was always very talented, and she was always near the top anyway. But she didn’t want to be just near the top; she wanted to be the best.”
The rapid improvement prior to and during her junior year served as the coming out party for Trapheagen. But the crowning achievement was being able to win a team and individual state title together. Trapheagen’s time of 19 minutes, 7 seconds was a full 40 seconds ahead of her next closest competitor.
It made her a heavy favorite entering her senior year. However, it also painted a giant target on her back in virtually every race she competed.
Trapheagen managed to overcome all of the challenges to cruise to another individual state championship, as Woodland secured a fourth straight top-two finish. Her time of 18:27.67 was 28 seconds quicker than any other Class 5A runner and was the fastest by a girl across all classifications.
“I definitely felt a little bit more pressure going into races,” Trapheagen said, regarding her senior year. “Towards the beginning of the season, I had a lot of anxiety about being known. I went out to several races, trying to lead the whole time. Over the course of the season, I definitely changed that race strategy, knowing that I don’t need to come out so hot and I can control that.
“I think without having that target on my back this whole season, I wouldn’t have been able to grow into that strategy, which is now working for me very well. I’m grateful for the pressure that position has put on me, because I’ve definitely evolved as a racer and as a competitor over the course of the season.”
Bollwerk, a former collegiate cross country runner, enjoyed getting to impart some wisdom on Trapheagen this season, including helping develop the formula that helped her star pupil remain at her best throughout the campaign.
“What it allowed me to do was just have more of a relationship with her,” Bollwerk said of the opportunity to coach Trapheagen. “Just to be able to share some experiences with her and challenges with her … to be able to share that on a more personal level, that was just wonderful for me.”
Trapheagen credited all of the Woodland coaches she’s had, including former girls head coach Matthew Landolt and boys head coach Rob Forbes, for helping her get to this point of her career.
“Being able to be a part of the Woodland program the past four years has been so incredible,” Trapheagen said. “It really sparked a new love for running. I did it in middle school and enjoyed it, but when I got to high school, it was just a whole other experience. When my freshman year we won the first state title for cross country at Woodland in all of history, it really just goes to show what a wonderful program I was a part of. I haven’t taken it for granted. …
“I’ve built so many great memories with this team and this program. I’m going to miss it so much. It’s shaped me to not only be a better runner but also a better woman.”
As she prepares to head off to join the Jackets next year, Trapheagen still has some things she hopes to accomplish as a Wildcat in the coming months.
She hasn’t won a state title in track yet and will likely be among the favorites in the 1600- and 3200-meter races. At the very least, Trapheagen would like to break the five-minute barrier in the 1600 after coming close several times last year with a personal-best of 5:00.55. She also hopes to return to New Balance Nationals this coming summer with the goal of finishing with All-America honors.
Regardless of whether she checks off any of those boxes, Trapheagen will go down as one of the county’s top athletes of her generation. She cemented her legacy long before she became the fourth Woodland runner to sign for college in just the past three years, and Trapheagen hopes the talented crop of young runners on this season’s team can continue the tradition.
“I look at those medals up on my wall every night and just think about how lucky I am,” she said. “… I can only hope that I’m inspiring the younger girls on the team to follow in my footsteps and accomplish great things, too.”