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updated: 6/13/2014 8:05 PM

When Jacobs' Van Vlierbergen runs, people stop to watch

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  • Jacobs Lauren Van Vlierbergen reacts after winning the Class 3A 800-meter run during girls track and field state finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

      Jacobs Lauren Van Vlierbergen reacts after winning the Class 3A 800-meter run during girls track and field state finals at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Jacobs' Lauren Van Vlierbergen takes fourth place in the Class 3A IHSA cross country state finals in Peoria.

      Jacobs' Lauren Van Vlierbergen takes fourth place in the Class 3A IHSA cross country state finals in Peoria.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

By Mike Miazga
Daily Herald Correspondent

Jacobs senior-to-be Lauren Van Vlierbergen might have a future as a spokeswoman for E.F. Hutton, the investment banking firm famous for its commercials with the tag line, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."

In the case of the ultra-talented Golden Eagles' distance runner, when she sets foot on the track, people stop what they're doing to watch her races.

"She almost has rock-star status," Jacobs girls' track coach Ryan Lemanski said. "They will stop field events and watch her run."

It takes a special talent for a scenario such as that to occur at the high school level, and Van Vlierbergen is that and then some.

She followed up a fourth-place finish at the Class 3A state cross-country finals in Peoria last November with an eye-opening Class 3A meet-record championship run in the 800 (2:11.80) at the Illinois Prep Top Times event -- the de facto state indoor finals. She also finished second in the 1,600 there. During the indoor season she also ran a 4:55.74 at a dual meet held at Stevenson, a time that held up as the fastest in the state through the 2014 outdoor season.

And for the piece de resistance, Van Vlierbergen won the Class 3A 800 state title last month in Charleston, covering the 2-lap race in 2:10.14, which ranks as the 11th fastest female time in recorded IHSA history. Current Vanderbilt runner Courtney Clayton (Hononegah) holds the state record at 2:07.05 and is in possession of two of the top five 800 times in state history.

Van Vlierbergen's phenomenal 2013-2014 accomplishments make her the overwhelmingly deserving recipient of Daily Herald Fox Valley Female Athlete of the Year honors.

"Her focus this year was on trying to win a state title," Lemanski said. "You could see that every time she set foot on the track. She had a different attitude this year and a different approach. She knew she had to work for it and it wouldn't be based on entitlement. She deserved it. She worked for it and got exactly what she worked for."

Lemanski noted Van Vlierbergen and Clayton's names came up during the IHSA.TV broadcast of the state finals. "Putting Lauren in the Courtney Clayton conversation is an honor," he said. "It's exciting to hear that comparison. Lauren got better this year. I don't want to say how much better, but she took 4 seconds off her time from last year."

Jacobs girls cross country coach Kevin Christian, who also coaches the distance runners on the track team, thought Van Vlierbergen took things to another level this spring.

"She exceeded expectations," he said. "We know she is really good and we know what she is capable of. To go out and win the state title in the manner she did is impressive."

Van Vlierbergen was asked how determined she was to win the 800 crown. "I wanted it pretty badly," she said. "After indoor state and having the top time in the state (in the 1,600), I felt like there was a lot of pressure to finish strong. My goal was to focus on the 800 and anything that happened after that I'd be happy with."

Van Vlierbergen said a modification to her training regimen played a role in her progress this season. "I focused more on speed training," she said. "Last year I was doing longer-distance training. I did a lot of sprints this year and that helped with my leg speed in the 800. I feel like I don't have that much leg speed. I feel like the longer distance is my thing. I still think I can work a lot more on my leg speed and that will help me adjust even better."

Christian has the opposite opinion when it comes to her leg speed. "Lauren has unbelievable range," he said. "She can go from the 800 up to the 3-mile. When you watch a cross country race, none of the kids have the leg speed Lauren has."

Lemanski marvels at the intensity Van Vlierbergen showed during workouts this past season, "Every hard workout and every time we put her through the ringer, it would be, 'Is that it?' he said. "Yeah, that's it. She constantly challenged herself."

This also was a season where Van Vlierbergen was not dogged by injuries. She battled a stress fracture and a hip ailment in previous seasons. "It was so awesome not being injured this year," she said. "It was the best feeling in the world being able to run this season and go through normal training. I definitely felt more prepared this year and I was healthy going into the state meet. I was so happy to finish the season healthy and get the state title."

So what about that 2:10 in the 800 she busted off in Charleston? "I was so excited to run a 2:10," she said. "That was a huge PR for me. It's pretty rare for me to get a PR in my races. My goal now is to break 2:10."

The fact that she ran the 2:10 against a field of elite Class 3A runners is something Van Vlierbergen fully appreciates. "I never really thought I would win the state title," she said. "It's very hard to be the best in Illinois because there are so many good runners."

Kind of lost in the shuffle is the fact Van Vlierbergen finished fifth in the state in the 1,600 with a time of 5:01.72. Could she win both the 800 and 1,600 titles next season? She did win the 800 and took second in the 1,600 indoors.

"I don't know," she said. "That would be a goal, but you never know. Doing that is hard. Doing a double is tough because there is not enough of a break between the 800 and the 1,600."

Christian also acknowledges winning both the 800 and the 1,600 could be tough. "There's about an hour-and-a-half break. It's a tough double," he said. "But if anyone could do it, it's definitely Lauren. It's definitely possible. If the focus was on the mile, she would have run 4:50, but she put it all in the 800 instead."

The last girls runner to win both the 800 and 1,600 state titles was Downs Tri-Valley's Stephanie Brown who won the 800 Class 1A title in 2009 by more than 9 seconds at the 1,600 title by more than 8 seconds. She went on to be a five-time all-American at Arkansas.

Van Vlierbergen also addressed the possibility of winning the cross-country title this fall. "That's something to shoot for," she said. "There are so many great runners in cross country, you never know what will happen. Track is more my thing, but I'm always excited for cross country. I'm excited to start training."

Christian added: "She's better at track, but that's a hard thing to say when she got fourth in the state in cross country. A lot of times girls don't see improvement all four years. Lauren has shown dramatic improvement all three years and has even more to go. She is going to be even better next year."

With her elite performances this past school year, the heavy hitters in Division I women's track and field are sure to come calling. Van Vlierbergen is looking forward to the recruiting process but has some specific goals in mind.

"Academics come first," said Van Vlierbergen, who gets straight A's in the classroom. "I want to find a school that has the major I want and hopefully I can run for their team."

Van Vlierbergen's state-title medal currently hangs with her other running medals in a closet.

"I feel like I probably should make a special place for it," she said.

Yes, the state championship medal belonging to a special talent who does special things most definitely deserves a special place.

But make sure there's extra space set aside. There's likely more hardware on the way.

"The opportunities and potential for this girl are limitless," Lemanski said.

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