Even when you’re as decorated an athlete as Bethanie Brown was at Waterville Senior High School, going away to college is still a massive learning experience.

As a freshman on the cross country team at Iowa State, one of the things Brown has learned is that the Big 12 has a “Newcomer of the Year” award for its conference meet. Brown finished fifth overall at the Big 12 meet, but had no idea there was such an award,

“After the race, one of the older girls on the team was like, ‘Oh Bethanie, you did so well. You’re the Newcomer of the Year!'” Brown said. “I thought she was just being really sweet and nice. I was like, ‘Awww. Thank you!’

“And then I got a trophy. I was like, ‘Wow, I guess there really is a Newcomer of the Year award.'”

It’s been a superb debut season for Brown in every respect. Through three collegiate races, her lowest finish was when she placed 32nd out of 288 runners. She’s already in the top five for a team ranked seventh in the country in Division I.

Brown, of course, was not planning on attending Iowa State. Her coach, Andrea Grove-McDonough, was coaching the University of Connecticut at the time, and thought so much of Brown that she made the third in-home recruiting visit of her college coaching career.

“She put up some marks — I’d say a lot of us were pretty aware of who she was,” Grove-McDonough said. “There are so many things to like about her. One, I just liked her on the phone. You could tell she was a smart kid. I think it was a good start to my relationship with her.”

Grove-McDonough left UConn to coach at Iowa State, and called Brown to tell her the news. Brown had the option of staying at UConn, following Grove-McDonough to Iowa State, or choosing another school. From the time she was allowed to talk to Grove-McDonough again, she had less than a week to choose her university.

“I got contacted by a bunch of different schools in that week,” Brown said. “So I had to make some quick decisions. I did a little researching, and I felt comfortable going to Iowa State.”

“My ending up at Iowa State was as much a surprise to me as anyone,” Grove-McDonough said. “When I recruited her, I told her I had no intentions of going anywhere. (She and her parents) took a real leap of faith, and trusted me. They didn’t get a chance to see the campus.”

When Brown arrived on campus, she began to handle the usual adjustments that come with being a college freshman, like dorm life and getting used to having a roommate. Brown doesn’t have a car in Iowa, and it’s a big campus, so she usually has about a 10 or 15-minute walk to class. She also knows that she’s exactly 22 hours from Waterville.

“I think it’s been good,” Brown said of the college experience. “I don’t think anyone really understands the extent to which college is a super-transition.”

There has been no sign of the adjustment process while Brown is running. If anything, Grove-McDonough is more impressed with Brown now than she was when she was trying to get Brown on her team.

“She is everything I thought she would be when I recruited her,” Grove-McDonough said. “She handles everything so well. She races like a senior.

“I use this word a lot with her — she’s just relentless. I try not to use sports clichés, but sometimes you can’t help it. There’s no quit in this girl.”

Grove-McDonough said Brown’s relentlessness and maturity were both on display at the Big 12 conference race. Brown got held up in the crowd early, and was back with Iowa State’s fifth, sixth, and seventh runners. Grove-McDonough watched as Brown coolly figured out a plan, and brought herself all the way to fifth overall by the end of the race.

“You know Bethanie’s going to be solid,” Grove-McDonough said. “That’s my feeling, whenever she’s on the starting line: She’s going to get the job done.”

After being held out of Iowa State’s first two races — Grove-McDonough had some concerns that someone as ultra-competitive as Brown would be trying to win even those difficult races — Brown made her debut Sept. 28 at the Roy Griak Invitational at the University of Minnesota. Brown finished the 6-kilometer course in 21 minutes, 25 seconds, and placed 21st overall. Or to put it another way,in her first-ever college race, Brown finished higher than any of the runners on the teams at Syracuse, Missouri, Iowa, and South Carolina.

“Every meet has been a great learning experience, and a lot of fun,” Brown said. “I’d get done, and I’d be like, ‘Whoa! Let’s do this again!'”

Brown and the Cyclones have the NCAA Midwest Regionals on Nov. 15, and the NCAA championships are Nov. 23. For a team ranked in the top 10 in the nation, naturally the question is what Iowa State can be expected to do at the national championships.

“I’m not going to say,” Grove-McDonough said. “I don’t want to put down what I think we can do. But I think this team is very, very good. I don’t want us to define our success or our failure based on a number. I think that there are two or three teams that are out of reach for us, and after that, I think it’s wide open.”

“I think that we’re a really strong team,” Brown said. “I think we’re capable of doing some pretty amazing things. But I think I agree with her about not putting a number on it, because it’s about the effort.”

Brown would like to be on both the indoor and outdoor track and field teams at Iowa State, running distance events. Grove-McDonough is an assistant track coach for the Cyclones.

“I don’t know if I’ll be red-shirted for one or the other,” Brown said. “I don’t think I will, but you never know.”

“I don’t think we even know what Bethanie’s going to be capable of at the NCAA level,” Grove-McDonough said, “but it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243[email protected]Twitter: @Matt_DiFilippo