Louisville, Ky. -- If anyone ever says hard work doesn't pay off, point them to Stephanie Burnett.
Tell them to look at her sparkling grade-point average. The extracurricular activity list a mile long. And Saturday, tell them to tune into the 2019 NCAA Division III Cross Country National Championships.
Burnett will represent Lynchburg's women in the 6k race, scheduled for 11:45 a.m., at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky. Max Sparks will represent the Hornets in the men's 8k race an hour prior.
She is the 14th Hornet woman in program history to qualify for cross country nationals, doing so with a fourth-place finish last week at the NCAA South/Southeast Region meet, setting the program's 6k record in the process at 21:40.9.
"I had no idea what pace I was running," Burnett said of the record-breaking race, "so I didn't have any idea that I broke 22 minutes, let alone the school record.
"I just knew that if I wanted to qualify for nationals, I had to run with the top runners in the ODAC. Finishing the race and knowing I accomplished my goal was the best feeling I have had in a long time."
She did both, the latest stride in a career that has been on a positive trajectory since Burnett came to Lynchburg in the fall of 2017 from her hometown of Midlothian, a Richmond suburb.
As a freshman, Burnett ran to a top-25 finish at the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championships but did not compete for the Hornets at the regional meet. Last season, she just missed All-ODAC honors, finishing 15th, and was 55th at the region championships. She climbed into the program's all-time top 10 list but remained a role-player behind a standout senior class and Kaitlyn Johnson's run to All-America status, the first in the history of Lynchburg women's cross country.
But with the seniors graduated -- Morgan Watson and Samantha Schreiber left with five All-ODAC and three all-region accolades between them -- and Johnson transferred elsewhere, leadership fell in large part on Burnett.
"Stepping up and helping (lone women's cross country senior) Michela (Cholak) lead the team this year felt natural," she said. "I enjoyed being able to mold our team, which is full of new faces."
The Lynchburg women brought seven new runners into the program -- returning just two of the top five from a season ago -- and still managed to finish second at the ODAC championship meet and sixth at regionals.
A lot of that was thanks to Burnett, whose breakout year helped the Hornets immensely.
"She is the story of development," Lynchburg's head cross country coach Jake Reed said. "She's done everything the right way since she stepped onto our campus, and now it's paying off for her."
A business management major with a GPA over 3.9 and a member of Lynchburg's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, along with several other honor societies and clubs, Burnett is "the perfect example of a student-athlete," Reed lauded.
With those successes -- on the course, track, and in the classroom -- came confidence.
"My plan for the national meet is the same as any race I've had this year," she said, "Go out there, race, and believe in myself."
Her coach, though, has a bit of a different strategy for the national meet; anything can happen on that stage, Reed said, so the goal is to try to stay at the front of the pack to keep a shot at that top-40 finish and an All-American title.
"We're going for broke," Reed said. "The idea is just to go out in that top 40 -- maybe out of your comfort zone a little bit -- and just hang on."