By BEN JOHNSON
Jessica Hembree’s list of accomplishments throughout her high school cross country career reads more like a novel rather than of a grocery list. But there’s one moment she’ll cherish above all else.
“Probably my most recent state championship,” said the soft-spoken senior at Tahlequah High School.
Now the obvious question: why?
“Because I came back and didn’t know if I’d be able to compete again,” Hembree said.
A quick history lesson.
After winning state crowns as a freshman and a sophomore, Hembree was rounding into the most dominant runner in the state as a junior. Yet, 50 yards — give or take — from the finish line at the 2011 state meet, Hembree crumbled to the ground with a broken tibia in her left leg.
She was unable to finish the race and her 2012 track season was all but done, as well.
Hembree, though, was able to restrengthen her leg and return to her superior standing. She claimed the Metro Lakes Conference crown before coasting to regional and state titles this year.
Next up for Hembree will be trying her hand at NCAA Division I racing. Hembree recently committed verbally to the University of Oklahoma, announcing her decision on Twitter.
“Looks like I’ll be running as a Sooner next year!” Hembree said on the social media website.
Hembree later confirmed the news to the Tahlequah Daily Press, saying she chose OU over Oklahoma State and Arkansas.
“Once I took all my official visits,” Hembree said, “I made my decision.”
Hembree said she intends on signing her letter on intent on National Signing Day on Feb. 6.
“It’s been a goal of mine,” Hembree said of becoming a runner at the collegiate level. “I’m really excited about next year.”
So, why did Hembree choose Oklahoma over in-state rival Oklahoma State or the university closest to Tahlequah, the University of Arkansas?
“I really enjoyed hanging out with the team and really liked the coach,” said Hembree, who was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces In The Crowd” section in the Nov. 12 issue.
“It felt like it was the school for me.
“It’ll kind of be a rebuilding year next year, and I felt like it would be good to be a part of something like that.”
As for Hembree’s left leg, she said, “it’s good. I’m back to normal now and training like [it’s] a normal winter.”
All that’s left for Hembree at the high school level is competing for Tahlequah during the upcoming track season.
“This track season, I’m going to try and get some new PR’s (personal records,” Hembree said, “and do the best that I can.”
The Hembree file
A look back at Jessica Hembree’s cross country career at Tahlequah High School
• After rehabbing a leg injury, Hembree returns to competition in early October at the Metro Lakes Conference meet.
• Hembree finishes first at the Metro Lakes Conference meet.
• Hembree wins her third regional title in four years, easily beating Grove’s Michaela Werner at Oral Robert University.
• Hembree wins the Class 5A state championship, beating Metro Christian’s Kelsey McKee by 14 seconds (11:48 to 12:02). Hembree wins her third individual title in four years.
• Hembree claims regular-season titles at the Early Tiger Cross Country Invitational in Tahlequah, the Tiger Invitational in Tahlequah and the Metro Lakes Conference meet in Coweta.
• Hembree beats Coweta’s Christi Dougherty for her second straight regional crown.
• Closing in on her third straight state championship, Hembree suffers a severe leg injury 50 yards from the finish line. Hembree was unable to finish the state meet.
• Hembree wins regular-season titles at the Tiger Invitational in Tahlequah and the Metro Lakes Conference meet in Collinsville.
• Hembree fell short of regular-season crowns at Tahlequah’s early•season meet and the Owasso meet.
• Almost finishing a full minute ahead of Dougherty, Hembree wins her first regional title.
• Hembree, again, beats Dougherty to win the state crown.
• Hembree’s first career victory comes at home in a nine-second win over Union’s Sarah Daggett in the Early Tiger Invitational in Tahlequah.
• Only time in her career that Hembree fails to win a regional championship. As a freshman, Hembree finished behind Collinsville’s Jenny Dyer.
• Hembree rebounds from the regional meet to top Dougherty by 12 seconds to win her first state championship.