Newport Harbor High senior cross country runner Paige Tennison is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / October 17, 2012)

Paige Tennison still has those conversations with her mother, the ones she has been having since her sophomore year at Newport Harbor High.

Tennison sees a cross country time and is amazed by it, perhaps temporarily forgetting the times that she is now capable of producing as a senior.

"I'm just going out and working as hard as I can," Tennison said. "I'll tell my mom, 'Oh my gosh, she's amazing!' And my mom will be like, 'Paige, you've ran faster than that.' And it's like, 'Oh, right.' It hasn't clicked still, I guess."

Not too many people in California can touch Tennison on the course. She is the top-ranked Division 2 girl in the state by longtime cross country and track guru Rich Gonzalez of prepcaltrack.com. She again proved she was Orange County's best at the Orange County Championships last weekend.

Tennison won the girls' sweepstakes race for the second straight year at Irvine Regional Park. She became the first repeat winner since former Woodbridge standout Christine Babcock accomplished the feat in 2006-07.

Tennison still considers it an honor to be compared to someone like Babcock, or her friend Laura Hollander. Hollander, who graduated from Marina last year, is a freshman runner at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. On the same day that Tennison won, so did her former Sunset League foe Hollander, at the 6K Wisconsin Invitational.

"She beat people that were in the Olympic Trials, people that are expected to win the NCAA championship," Tennison said. "She beat all of them. It was amazing. She's probably my idol, one of them. She's inspirational."

Tennison is plenty fast herself. Her time at the Orange County Championships was 16:56, three seconds better than last year.

Not bad, considering recently she missed nearly a week of training due to an allergic reaction from a wheat-like substance in a drink.

"Who puts wheat in a Frappuccino?" said Tennison, whose illness caused her to miss the Clovis Invitational on Oct. 6.

Newport Harbor Coach Eric Tweit notes that Tennison also didn't race at the Dana Hills Invitational earlier this year. He expects his top runner to be fresh for the end of the season. The Sailors competed at Mt. San Antonio College on Saturday. Then, next weekend, they will take part in the Sunset League finals.

Tennison will be favored to win the individual title there; last year she was second to Hollander.

"She's really been serious about running less than two years," Tweit said. "It wasn't until her sophomore year of track that she really showed she was actually going to do something. It's kind of strange. It seems like she's been around a long time, but it's really been less than two years. I think the big difference is pretty simple — it's just maturity.

"Last year she had a few problems, not anything major, but a few problems just because she didn't know the correct way to train and take care of herself ... She's matured and she's still learning what it takes, but she's getting better at it."

Some runners might just say they want to get better every race. But Tennison is not shy about stating her ultimate goal for the year, which is the state title. Last year, she finished sixth in Clovis in Division 2 and medaled.

She will certainly be one of the favorites to win, but she's also not taking anything for granted.

"Every week we usually do a hill workout, then some sort of speed workout," Tennison said. "Whenever I do a workout where you're working on speed and stuff like that, I'm the type of person where it's either as fast as I can, or not at all. If my times are off, mentally, I need to go faster. Coach Tweit will be like, 'That's OK, you went a little farther yesterday, your legs should be tired.' But that doesn't mean anything to me. I'm going to push as hard as I can, no matter how I'm feeling. It's really hard for me to hold back."

On the course, Tennison said she's in the zone. She considers the OC Championships course her favorite, and one of the big reasons is that it's clearly marked.

It seems trivial, until you consider what happened to Tennison last year at Mt. SAC.

"You're supposed to do two loops, and I kept going on the second loop when you were supposed to turn and go up the hill," Tennison said. "I ended up running maybe 400 meters out of the way, until I realized, 'Oh gosh, maybe I'm going the wrong way.' This guy was like, 'Turn around!' But I made my way back up. That's probably one of my worst fears going into every race — am I going to know where to go?