Running down a dream

Three local cross country runners are building something special at Allen



October 22, 2021 - 3:16 PM

Allen Community College cross country runners are, from left, Ursula Billings, Rachel Bycroft, Elka Billings, Nevaeh Pantoja and McKenna Esfeld. Courtesy photo

“Stay home and build” is the motto a lot of colleges pitch to local athletes.

Elka Billings, Rachel Bycroft, and Ursula Billings did just that when the trio opted to sign with Allen Community College. 

All three attended Iola High School before the Billings sisters finished high school at Crest.

“It was cool to get local kids,’’ said Allen cross country head coach Vince DeGrado. “Getting local kids to stay is difficult sometimes because they want to get out of town it’s cool to see local kids have the success they are having.”

“Elka signed first and then Rachel,” Ursula Billings said. “I knew that I always wanted to follow in Elka’s footsteps. It was by chance that we all ended up here.”

Elka and Rachel were named National Junior College Athletic Association All-Americans after their freshman season last November. 

“It’s cool. I never would have thought we would do this,” said Elka Billings. “I just wanted to stay home and be with my family but it’s cool to have built this program up, I guess.”

With the success the trio is having, one could say they are blazing a trail for the next wave of area runners to follow at Allen.

“Coming into Allen I didn’t know any girls in the past who came here,” Rachel Bycroft said. “I just knew Vince’s past success and I wanted to help him rebuild the girls’ program.”

“When we started in high school we weren’t the greatest runners,” Ursula said. “It’s amazing that we all chose to come to Allen and stay local. Leaving a legacy is a great honor, to be able to show other people that you can stay local.”

ACC recently competed against NCAA Division I teams like Arkansas State, with Elka taking third place overall. Ursula came in 21st. Rachel did not compete due to an injury. Allen was the only junior college invited to the event.

“Our performance shows that ‘junior college’ is just a label and that it doesn’t matter,” Elka said. “Just because you go to a junior college doesn’t mean you will be slower. It’s all about what you put into it.”

With the nationals coming soon, there is a possibility Allen could be celebrating a national champion. “A national championship would show people you can succeed regardless of where you go,” Elka said.

Ursula should be a senior in high school but graduated early to enroll with her sister at Allen before they even knew Rachel would be with them.

“Ursula sacrificed a lot to be on this team with us,” Elka said.

“I feel a lot of accomplishment,” Ursula added. “I’ve been able to come to this level at the age I am, knowing I should still be in high school. I think it’s a great honor to run with people older than me and be influenced by them, especially running on the same team as my sister.”

Despite being the youngest on the team, Ursula has shown her maturity, DeGrado said.

“I honestly forget Ursula is essentially a 17-year-old senior,” DeGrado said. “She carries herself like she is a college freshman. She has her mannerisms and runs like a college freshman.