Jacobs junior girls cross country standout Lauren Van Vlierbergen took up running during her middle-school years at Westfield in Carpentersville.
Even back then, Van Vlierbergen had a plan. Her goal was to attempt to break 60 seconds in the 400 dash. What middle-school-aged kid thinks like that?
"She's unbelievable," said Jacobs coach Kevin Christian. "I saw her run once in junior high and knew right then that I had to have her on our team. She goes after it more than any other kid I have ever seen. She's one of the smartest runners I have ever coached. She keeps meticulous logs and evaluates everything she does. She compares times in workouts and races to what she did last year. She's smart with everything she does."
Van Vlierbergen, who will attempt to improve on her seventh-place state finish from a year ago in the Class 3A state finals Saturday in Peoria at Detweiler Park, originally went out for cross country her freshman year with the goal of helping her get in better shape for the track season.
"It turns out I really loved cross country," she said. "I like spending time with my teammates. I love my teammates. We're all really close, both the boys and girls teams."
Van Vlierbergen recalled running a 5:17 mile in middle school and said she got close to breaking 60 seconds in the 400 numerous times, going as low as 1:00.3.
"I was just a track runner back then," she says. "Trying to break 60 was a goal I always had."
Her first foray into cross country running freshman year was not spectacular in nature, but did offer a glimpse into her bright future. She finished seventh in the Fox Valley Conference meet as a ninth-grader, but did not qualify for the state meet.
Last year saw Van Vlierbergen win the FVC title in a year that was dotted with injury issues. She weathered through a stress fracture that kept her out of the regional race. She was able to run in the state meet after the Golden Eagles qualified from regionals to sectionals without her, and then she qualified for state as an individual. She missed two weeks of action while resting the ailment.
"I was wearing a boot and then I'd take it off and run a race and put it back on," she says. "It was hard taking the two weeks off before state."
The rest obviously helped.
"Getting seventh in the state was way better than I thought I would get," said Van Vlierbergen, who also is a two-time state qualifier in track. "I don't know if I could have done much better."
Christian marvels at the commitment Van Vlierbergen has made not only to the sport, but to the Jacobs program as well.
"She lives it," the coach said. "She makes every sacrifice in her life to better herself as a runner. Over the summer she was injured a little bit, but she was out there every day at 6 a.m. cross-training because she couldn't run a ton. She would then meet the team at 7:30 a.m. even though she couldn't run. She wanted to be there with the team. You don't see that a lot."
This season Van Vlierbergen has hit the gas pedal even harder in terms of her training. The results have been impressive -- conference, regional and sectional individual titles.
"I've gotten in a lot better shape," said Van Vlierbergen, whose freshman sister, Kathryn, ran on the Jacobs varsity this season. "I've been training more than I had been at the beginning of the season. I'm hoping all the training will help me reach my goals at state."
Those goals include a Top 5 finish Saturday in Peoria.
"Winning it would be ideal, but my goal of being in the Top 5 is realistic," she said.
Van Vlierbergen, a two-time FVC individual champion, recalled being rather nervous at last year's state meet. She said nerves actually help her in big races.
"I was pretty scared last year," she said. "I think nerves help. I actually do better when I'm nervous. I know what to expect down there a little more now. I know how to mentally prepare for the race. I know it probably will go out fast. I'll be more prepared this time."
Christian added that while Van Vlierbergen is a special runner, she's an even more elite talent in the classroom (she's a straight-A student).
"She's supersmart," he said. "I have her in my AP computer programming class. As good as it is to coach her, she's an even better student."
Christian said Van Vlierbergen's Top 5 prediction for this weekend might be a bit on the modest side.
"There are five or six girls who could win it," he said. "She's one of them. She may not be the favorite, but she's in the conversation. Glenbard West, Hinsdale Central and New Trier have studs, but Lauren is right there with them. She would never admit to it. She's right there with that group. She has gotten significantly better in every meet she has run this year. Her getting seventh last year made her want it even more. Let's see what she can do. Downstate, anything can happen."
Also in the Class 3A race Saturday is the local contingent of Streamwood junior Gabby Juarez (6th at sectionals) and the Cary-Grove junior duo of Morgan Schultz (4th at sectionals) and Talia Duzey (15th at sectionals).
On the boys' side, Huntley sophomore Keagan Smith (4th at sectionals), Bartlett senior Dan Cotton (6th at sectionals) and Jacobs senior Matthew Johnson (12th at sectionals) will compete in the Class 3A final, while Burlington Central junior Clay Musial (12th at sectionals) runs in the Class 2A finale.
Harvest Christian Academy will compete as a team in the Class 1A final on the strength of a six-second-sectional split from the likes of seniors John Vislisel and Jacob Schott, along with freshman Riley Steiner. Vislisel led the way with a 26th-place finish for the Lions. Three of Harvest's five scoring runners at the sectional were either sophomores or freshmen.