Hannah Steelman of Wofford College, who was a standout runner at Orono High School, has boosted her performance since joining the college ranks. She competes for the Terriers' cross country and track and field teams. Credit: Wofford College athletics

A second-place finish at the 2014 Maine Cross Country Race of Champions in Belfast gave then-Orono High School sophomore Hannah Steelman an inkling that running, not basketball, might be her path to ultimate athletic success.

“This was a breakout race for me,” Steelman recalled in a posting on me.milesplit.com last summer, “and it made me realize what I was capable of and how much I enjoyed just going out there and letting my legs do what they can.”

Basketball certainly could have been a logical option — she was pretty good at that sport, too — while her older brother Matt had played on two NCAA Division I tournament teams at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and her father, Todd, was the associate head coach of the University of Maine women’s basketball team at the time.

But that top performance among the hundreds of runners in Maine’s biggest annual cross-country event proved motivational. And her subsequent commitment to distance running is now paying off in a big way for Steelman, herself now a student-athlete at Wofford.

Steelman was named Southern Conference freshman of the year in cross-country last fall, earned All-Southern Conference status during indoor track and is the most recent SoCon women’s outdoor track and field athlete of the week for the Terriers.

“I came in really not knowing what to expect,” Steelman said Wednesday. “I put in a lot of work over this summer, lots of miles, lots of time, and in my first 5K going into cross-country I was like, ‘We’ll see what happens.’

“It’s been a pleasant surprise so far, to be sure.”

Steelman earned her most recent accolade after a third-place finish in her first collegiate 1,500-meter race outdoors at the 49er Classic in Charlotte, North Carolina. She obliterated the school record by more than 13 seconds with a time of 4 minutes, 28.95 seconds, a mark that ranked as the fastest in the conference this spring and stood 13th nationally on the NCAA Division I performance list.

“Hannah has progressed nicely,” Wofford head cross-country and track and field coach Johnny Bomar said. “She’s really embraced what she’s doing, she just goes out and grinds every day. She works hard.”

Steelman’s ascension to scholarship athlete at Wofford began relatively late during her high school career at Orono, home to one of Maine’s top interscholastic track programs.

“When I decided that I wanted to get a little more serious about running because I wanted to really try to get some Division I offers I just started to put in more time and more mileage,” she said. “I improved my eating habits and just did the little things, but most of it was training volume, I went from 30 to 35 miles per week up to 50 to 60.

“It was a big transition.”

While Steelman backed up her effort in the 2014 Race of Champions by winning the Class C cross-country state title that year, it was as a senior in outdoor track when she truly rose to an elite level among Maine high school distance runners. She won her third straight Class C state championship in the 1,600 (5:07.62) and first title in the 3,200 (11:09.91) — both in personal-best times — and helped the Red Riots win the 4×800 relay.

She followed that with a 5:02.76 clocking in the 1,600 a week later at the 2017 New England championships.

By that time, college coaches were taking full notice.

“She came down and visited and we liked Hannah but leading into the spring of her senior year she just wasn’t that fast,” Bomar recalled. “She was actually going to be a walk-on for us until she ran 5:07 for the mile and then we thought, ‘Wow, this girl’s cookin.’”

Steelman has added strength training to her physical regimen since arriving at Wofford last summer.

“I was a little bit nervous going into it because since I’d never done it I thought I was going to be a weakling,” she said. “But we really don’t focus on heavy lifting, it’s more resistance training and lighter bodyweight stuff that helps prevent injuries, which is really big when you’re running so many miles.”

Steelman capped off her first season of cross-country at Wofford by finishing 18th overall and second among freshmen at the NCAA Division I Southeast Regional in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a time of 20:57.9 for the 6-kilometer race.

Last winter, she earned All-Southern Conference status in indoor track with a second-place finish at the conference championships in the 3,000 (9:58.41) and a third in the 5,000 (16:44.88) to go with a fourth in the mile (4:57.83).

“It gets me excited for what’s to come, but of course nothing’s guaranteed,” Steelman said. “I’ve got to keep working, and it gets harder and harder to drop time so I’m going to have to keep pushing in my workouts and doing what my coaches have planned for me.”

What Bomar has planned for Steelman this weekend is something new for her — the chance to run the steeplechase at a meet to be hosted by Wofford, where it was sunny and 70 as practice neared late Wednesday morning.

“It’s definitely something I couldn’t do in Maine right now,” Steelman joked in reference to the water jump that is part of the steeplechase course. Up until two weeks ago I had never really gone over a hurdle, but I’m excited to see how it goes.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...