Laurie Schuster is on the road again.
But judging from her cross-country success this season, it's hard to believe the Occidental College junior is on the comeback trail.
Schuster never won a league title when she was running cross-country for Irvine High, nor did she win a race in two previous seasons at Occidental.
This year, however, Schuster finished unbeaten in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
After competing, without a break, in cross-country and track since her freshman year in high school, Schuster nixed her Nikes last winter, sat out the track season and turned her thoughts elsewhere.
She returned this fall revitalized and ran away with the SCIAC title. She never lost in a dual meet and beat her nearest competitor at the conference championships last week in La Mirada by 40 seconds.
"Every race I'm feeling stronger and stronger," Schuster said. "Last year, I was getting burned out--I needed that break to remember why I was running.
"I had been doing it for so long, I kind of forgot that I actually enjoyed it."
Schuster, 20, will compete this weekend in the NCAA Division III West regional at UC Santa Cruz and is expected to earn a berth in the national championship meet Nov. 18 at Rock Island, Ill.
Bill Harvey, who is in his 11th season coaching cross-country at Occidental, said Schuster always had the physical ability--but not the confidence--to run the way she has this season. Getting off the track, as it were, helped Schuster clear a mental hurdle.
"She knows why she's out here and what she wants out of it," Harvey said. "When you start at a young age, sometimes it just becomes a habitual activity rather than something that you're really enjoying the way that you should.
"The time off helped her realize that."
Schuster started running in the seventh grade with her father, John, who jogged to stay in shape. In high school, she earned all-league recognition while competing all four years for the Irvine varsity.
Individual titles, however, eluded her.
"It just seemed like there was always someone else there that was unbeatable," Schuster said.
It was much the same case when Schuster arrived at Occidental.
Michelle Trimble, a three-time All-American who graduated last year, never lost a SCIAC race in four years with the Tigers.
During her freshman season, Schuster ran in the shadows of Trimble and other more experienced teammates and finished fifth in the conference championship meet. As it turned out, that also was where Schuster peaked. Two weeks later--on a hilly Crystal Springs course in San Mateo--she finished 13th at the regional championships.
That meet marked the beginning of a long, frustrating year for Schuster.
She had cramping problems throughout her sophomore cross-country season, placed seventh at the regionals, then went to the Division III national meet in St. Louis and finished 97th.
"I tried to force it out of myself," Schuster said of her effort, "and I just bombed."
With approval from Harvey, Schuster bypassed the track season.
However, midway through last summer, Schuster saw an off-road truck race on television at her parents' home in Danville, Calif. She watched the vehicles fly off the bumpy terrain and decided it was time to get back on the road herself.
Harvey is hoping that Schuster will maintain her reborn joy for running through the upcoming track season and her final cross-country season next year.
"She's just now starting to blossom," Harvey said. "I think she's going to be much better in another year because when you work in this atmosphere--in this frame of mind--for a year or so, then good things really begin to happen."