Many athletes associate running with punishment. Even as a sixth grader, Catholic High cross country runner Jeffrey Kelley enjoyed it.

“We would run the mile in P.E., and I was the only one who ever liked to do that,” Kelley said. “I kept at it through eighth grade. Then I found cross country in high school, and that was just the thing for me.”

Kelley ran his first three-mile race at the Baton Rouge metro meet as a freshman. As the junior ran up the “infamous hill” at Highland Road Park he overcame a fear and opened himself up to new opportunities.

“(Three miles) is a lot harder and a lot different,” Kelley said. “But it’s a lot more fun too.”

Kelley enjoyed a breakout year last fall. Just a year after his first three-mile race, Kelley won the 2013 Metro meet with a time of 15 minutes, 29.66 seconds and helped the Bears win the meet title.

He also finished first at the Battlefield Invitational and then capped off the season by placing sixth at the Louisiana High School Athletic Association state meet in Natchitoches, leading Catholic to a runner-up finish in Class 5A. Kelley also shaved 45 seconds off of his three-mile time between September and November.

“I’m getting older and getting better,” Kelley said. “I got into a strenuous program later (than most runners), so I think that had something to do with improving quickly. I’m going to try to keep it up.”

As a sophomore Kelley was selected as the outstanding boys runner on the all-metro team by area coaches. It was his second all-metro honor. The accolades caught Kelley by surprise, but he says they haven’t influenced the way he trains.

“It was weird to go from just being just another runner to being someone that everyone was looking at,” Kelley said. “It was strange, but I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot. I’m still out there running like I always have.”

Kelley also credits his teammates for pushing him to become a better runner. Kelley said the team competes with each other in training to create a solid core, which will continue as the team heads into their first official practice Monday.

When one Catholic player beats another in practice, the loser thanks the winner, according to Kelley. The Bears’ goal is to compete with each other and improve as a team, which they hope puts them on a path toward a state title.

“We push each other,” Kelley said. “We all make each other better, and we know that.”

While the team enjoyed the runner-up title last season, Kelley said past success won add pressure this season.

“We’re always shooting (to finish) as high as we possibly can,” Kelley said. “We’re not going to slack off because we’ve reached a certain point. But as long as we do our best, we’re going to be proud.”

Kelley started running as a novice and is now a serious runner. He can’t explain his excitement for running, but he loves the challenge.

“When we get guys like Jeffrey who started with us and didn’t have any type of background, it’s just fun to watch them as they grow and come to understand and love the sport,” Catholic coach Pete Boudreaux said. “(His career) has been a steady rise. He’s gotten better as each season progressed. We hope we can see the same thing this fall.”