It's not every day a high school sophomore gets a standing ovation from hundreds of schoolmates for just walking through the cafeteria, but Carl Sandburg (Orland Park, Ill.) cross country standout Lukas Verzbicas got precisely that treatment Thursday as he toted the 2009-10 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year trophy through the adjacent student commons. Minutes earlier, the first-ever recipient of a Gatorade high school award, former NFL star quarterback Jeff George, interrupted Verzbicas's English class to deliver the good news.
"I'm just so honored," gushed Verzbicas, who was visibly stunned upon hearing he'd won. "I have too many people to thank. My parents, my coaches, my school, the triathlon scene -- all have been so supportive. This is amazing. I never expected to win this award. There are so many great cross country athletes at the high school level, I'm very fortunate."
"It's pretty amazing to think that he's had this level of success so fast," said George, a 14-year veteran of the league who threw for more than 27,000 yards. "Not to get ahead of ourselves, but you start to project it out with him being only a sophomore, well, the potential he has kind of blows you away."
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but you start to project it out with him being only a sophomore, well, the potential he has kind of blows you away.
-- Jeff George, on Lukas Verzbicas
The 5-foot-11 Verzbicas (pronounced Vurz-BIC-iss) raced to the national title at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships this past season with a time of 15:07.8, breaking the tape 15 seconds ahead of the next-closest competitor to become the youngest champion in the event's 31-year history. The Eagles' standout also won the 2009 Class AAA state cross country championship in 14:07 and took first at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional championships with a time of 15:34.
"Entering the final two weeks of the 2009 cross country season, Verzbicas was one of a small handful of great candidates that could have finished as the season's best," said ESPN RISE/DyeStat senior editor Steve Underwood. "In the end, he had the last word, becoming the first sophomore to win the national Foot Locker Cross Country Championships -- with a fast and dominating performance in poor conditions -- and completing an undefeated year."
As a freshman, Verzbicas set a national high school indoor record in the 5K with a time of 14:18.42 at the 2009 Nike Indoor Nationals last March, breaking by more than 11 seconds a 25-year-old record set by Brad Hudson (South Eugene, Eugene, Ore.) in 1984; hours earlier, 2008-09 national Foot Locker Cross Country Championships winner and then-senior Solomon Haile of Maryland had run a 14:22 in New York. At Nike, Verzbicas doubled with a win in the two-mile (8:57.44), shattering the freshman record of 9:16.55. His freshman cross country season was cut short by a back injury, which he attributes to over-training.
Verzbicas also owns national freshman class indoor records in the mile (4:15.43) and 3,000 meters (8:29.15) as well as the freshman outdoor record in the two-mile run (8:53.98). Not surprisingly, he has more thresholds in his crosshairs: For starters, he covets the Illinois state meet course record of 13:50.6 at Peoria's Detweiller Park, owned by three-time Olympian and U.S. high school distance running legend Craig Virgin (Lebanon High, Lebanon Ill.) since 1972. Nursing a sore left Achilles tendon last fall, Verzbicas fell short in a much-hyped bid to eclipse the mark.
A native of Lithuania who came to the United States in 2002, Verzbicas turned 17 on Jan. 6 and has maintained a 3.32 GPA in the classroom. He is a devoted parishioner of the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis Lithuanian Catholic Mission community and has volunteered locally mentoring youth triathletes and runners on behalf of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team.
Oddly enough, it remains utterly unclear whether Verzbicas, who won the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships Youth Division title as an eighth grader in 2007, has a future in distance running. He is already a world-class athlete in duathlon and triathlon for his age group, and if multi-event competition ends up projecting as his quickest route to an Olympic medal, Verzbicas is unlikely to specialize. Both his stepfather, longtime international track coach Romas Bertulis, and his mother, Rasa, a former Lithuanian national record-holder in the 3,000-meter run, have implored him to remain as diverse athletically as possible for as long as possible.
So far, it's a dead heat for running versus multi-event. Having never lost a high school cross country race, he's enjoyed unprecedented success as a scholastic distance runner, but Verzbicas followed up his USA Triathlon Youth Elite National Championships title in 2008 by capturing gold at the 2009 Pan American Triathlon Confederation Junior Championships. This past September, while also training for the Sandburg High cross country season, he became the 2009 Junior Duathlon World Champion.
He is maniacally devoted to his training. Verzbicas routinely swims 25,000 yards and bikes more than 100 kilometers in a week on top of a relatively modest 50 miles of roadwork. He functions at a different level than 99-percent of high school cross country competitors -- more at ease discussing his quest to train within "higher heart rate zones" or his preference for consuming the high-protein Bolivian grain quinoa before races than delving into typical teenage chit-chat.
Verzbicas is the master of the hum-drum quote ("I enjoy apples" or "I look forward to crossing the finish line; my goal is to do it in first"). Not because he is hum-drum, but because he moves to the beat of a different drummer. This is a kid who's so focused on what's next that when he was asked recently if he would consider anything less than an Olympic gold medal a disappointing athletic career, he responded: "Absolutely." Not because he believes gold is predestined, mind you, but rather because his predilection for enduring and overcoming pain will make it so.
Verzbicas is the first sophomore male to win a Gatorade national award. In the program's 25-year history, sprinter Marion Jones (Thousand Oaks High, Thousand Oaks, Calif.) is the only three-time winner, capturing the Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year trophy from 1990-93. As a guy who's always focused on what's next, can Verzbicas get his head around the fact he has a shot to match that feat?
"Hey, I guess I've won it once, so that'd be a great goal," he said. "It's true, I don't think about the past or the present, just the future. Obviously, it would take a tremendous amount of hard work to win it again."