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She swept the 2009-10 postseason running awards during her senior year of high school at Leonardtown.

She was the All-County Athlete of the Year in cross country and in both indoor and outdoor track and field, even receiving an All-SMAC Most Outstanding Player award in cross country after winning the 2009 cross country girls championship and appearing on All-SMAC teams in both seasons of track and field.

So, 2010 Leonardtown graduate Jessica Gass is not used to being in the back of the pack, not even a little bit.

But when she found herself trailing her Liberty University (Va.) teammates during the start of her sophomore year, something had to be wrong.

Gass started feeling the symptoms in August 2011 and the fatigue continued to hold her running progress hostage throughout the fall of 2011 and into the winter, so much so that it caused her to red-shirt and miss the entire 2011-12 indoor track season.

She almost quit.

But in February 2012, she realized what was holding her back after being diagnosed with anemia.

“After I found out that it was anemia, I realized that God was just putting me through this trial to make me realize that my strength comes from him,” Gass said. “It grew me so much spiritually.”

Anemia is a condition in which the body does not create enough iron, which is used to get oxygen throughout the body.

“I didn’t know about it until about five or six months after I actually felt symptoms,” Gass said. “I was really weak, very tired. I was at the back of the team and I couldn’t even keep up during warm-ups. It was very devastating and it actually got to the point where I wanted to quit. I didn’t know if God wanted me to focus more on school and forget about running.”

But she did not quit, she began taking supplements and almost a year after being diagnosed, she admits, “I am stronger than ever.”

That proof came during this semester of her junior year at Liberty when head track and field and cross country coach Brant Tolsma pulled Gass into his office and issued some good news to the runner. She was to receive an athletic scholarship for the 2013 spring semester.

“He knew where I was with anemia and how slow I was performing previously,” Gass said, “and then [saw] this semester me coming back strong and being a good example of following Christ and getting strong. He said he wanted to congratulate my dedication to the sport after going through such trials. ... It was definitely awesome.”

Gass is still in love with distance running that earned her numerous high school accolades, running the 3K during the indoor season and 5K during outdoor. S

However, she has taken primarily to the steeplechase, her main outdoor track event and a race she had never run before freshman year at Liberty.

“It was just a different, exciting race to do,” she said. “I really fell in love with it and I have been doing it ever since.”

Gass has made the event her main outdoor concentration after already landing on the school’s all-time top-10 list in terms of steeplechase times, clocking in at 12 minutes 5.14 seconds during the spring 2011 Big South Conference championship meet which, at the time, was good enough for 10th on the school’s all-time list but has since been bettered.

“Collegiate athletics is a lot more competitive,” Gass explained. “Everyone on the team is focused and driven for a purpose, especially here at Liberty. We’re a Christian college, so everyone has a spiritual focus on top of our athletics.”

Gass’ belief in God was a big reason she decided to attend the college and her faith has played a large role in her academics and athletics.

“At Liberty, the coaches don’t just push us athletically with workouts and things, they also push us with devotionals and continue driving us to grow closer with the Lord,” Gass said. “They encourage us to be better people after college and not just right now with our performances.”

Now with her collegiate athletic career in full swing, Gass her eyes set on goals both on and off of the course and track.

She has set her sights set on breaking the 18-minute mark in the 5K race and lowering her personal-best steeplechase time of 12:01 to 11:30.

“Our team’s goal is constantly to win Big South,” Gass said.

She went on to explain that the big goal is to win the, “double-triple crown,” in which both the boys and girls teams win the Big South Conference championships in cross country, indoor and outdoor track.

Academically, Gass said of her goals, “I continue to strive to be on the dean’s list. I strive to keep or raise my GPA to as high as I can, above a 3.5 in hopes to go to grad school for physical therapy.”

jmccray@somdnews.com