Loudoun County High School senior Jennifer Lapetoda established herself as one of the elite in Group AA cross-country last year, with her second-place finish at the Northwestern District meet and her eighth-place finish at the state meet. But her coach still has a hard time viewing her as a runner.
"I always describe her as an athlete," said Raiders Coach Courtney Campbell, whose team finished fifth at last year's Group AA cross-country meet, the school's highest finish in 12 years. " . . . Other girls who run track and cross-country--I think of them as runners. But Jennifer is an athlete."
More precisely, Lapetoda is a soccer player. Last spring, she was named first-team all-Northwestern District and first-team all-Region II after scoring 17 goals for the Loudoun County girls soccer team, which advanced to the Group AA finals. In fact, she joined the cross-country team so she could get in shape for soccer.
"My dad is a good runner--he ran in college--and I used to go out running with him all the time," Lapetoda said. "But I would always stop and tie my shoes, to take breaks."
At the same time, Campbell says, soccer gives Lapetoda a good mental break. With soccer, she doesn't get burned out mentally from running competitively year-round, and she knows how to lead--and succeed--on a team.
"It's good that she does a sport that involves a lot of running . . ." Campbell said. "If she did track and then came right back and had to do cross-country, she'd either do great or she'd fall apart."
Lapetoda played on a club soccer team during her freshman fall but gave that up because doing two sports at once was too tiring. This fall, she won't even play pick-up soccer for fear that she might twist an ankle or pull a muscle.
"Cross-country is really important to me," said Lapetoda, who went to a week-long running camp in Lancaster, Pa., with her teammates this summer. "During cross-country season, my focus is on cross-country. This is my last year and my last chance to accomplish the things that I want to."
Lapetoda has improved steadily since her freshman year, when she was on the junior varsity. As a sophomore, she finished 12th at the Northwestern District meet (in a time of 21:02), ninth at the Region II meet (20:31) and was the only Raiders runner to advance to the state meet, where she finished 22nd. At the 1998 Group AA meet, Lapetoda completed the course in 19:35.
Lapetoda won the NOVA Invitational--the equivalent of the county championships--in each of the past two seasons, and her winning time in 1998 (20:21) was significantly faster than her time in 1997 (20:55).
That kind of success causes Lapetoda to think, every once in a while, about giving up soccer in favor of outdoor track.
"I would just like to have one chance to run in one dual track meet, just to see what I could do," she said. "I think I would like track more than cross-country. I'd like to try the sprints, definitely the mile and the half-mile, maybe a jump or two, and the hurdles. I've always wanted to be a hurdler."
But Campbell isn't holding his breath. He has heard this routine before.
"For four years, I've been trying to get her to run track, and no luck," said Campbell, who coaches the boys track team. "She always talks about it, like she's going to do it, and then at the last moment she changes her mind."