It isn't often that a cross-country meet in November commands as much attention as the state football playoff. But Saturday in Peoria is one of those times. The 38-year-old state record of legendary runner Craig Virgin will be at stake at Detweiler Park and Sandburg's Lukas Verzbicas could surpass it. But can he beat York's Jack Driggs?
Virgin, who set a national record in the 3,200 the following spring at the All-American meet at Prospect, won the state cross-country title in 13:50.6 in 1972. Last year, Verzbicas won the event in 14:07 while York's Andrew Smith and Driggs were next at 14:28.
For his part, Virgin wishes Verzbicas good luck in his quest to set a new standard. "If he is healthy, he will take a good shot at it. He was on track for half the race last year before fading slightly in the second half," Virgin said.
"He will need to run a sub-4:30 first mile and a sub-4:40 third mile if he is to break 13:50. It will not be easy. But I believe he can do it--if he is healthy. He is a very talented athlete. I plan on being there to watch for myself."
But that's only part of the drama. Driggs, one of only four runners in the glorious history of York's cross-country and track programs to break 4:10 for the mile, believes he is in good position to challenge Verzbicas. And he isn't the only one.
"I really think Jack Driggs will take a shot at Lukas Verzbicas. Both are capable of getting the course record," said Bob Geiger of Illinois Prep Top Times, pointing out that Driggs recently ran a three-mile time trial in 14:02 alone on York's track.
"Personally, I don't look at Driggs as being sub-13.50 capable," Virgin said. "He just doesn't have enough races at or close to 14:00 to make that big a jump down. Now, watch him go out and make me eat my words. However, the fact that Driggs is really coming on at the end of the season, peaking at the right time, after a documented quantity and quality of races, indicates that he is a known factor.
"Lukas has only two or three cross-country races under his belt. But Lukas has demonstrated that this limited racing approach has not been a detriment to him in the past. God only knows how he does it. But the fact that Driggs could scare him could push Lukas to go out under 4:30 and then anything is possible. And, if Lukas falters by going out too fast and slowing in the final mile, then he is capable of being beaten."
"I'm definitely ready," Driggs said after winning Saturday's sectional at Niles West. "He's (Verzbicas) the best. He has a target on his back. But I'm ready. I'm not saying I'll win. But I will give him a run for his money."
Driggs believes if he can keep within five seconds of Verzbicas at the mile mark, he will have a chance to win because of his superior finishing speed. But he concedes he'd rather finish second to Verzbicas while York wins the team championship instead of beating Verzbicas for the individual title while York finishes second in the team competition.
"I'm confident. I have been running good workouts," Driggs said. "Everyone is hyping Saturday as me vs. Lukas. I feel I can dig down deeper. I feel I have been working for this Saturday. He likes to burn people out. If I can close the gap and be near him with a mile to go...well, it will come down to who will have the most guts in the last mile."
For Driggs, the magic number is 9:16. If he can achieve that time for the first two miles, he believes he will be in position to win with his closing finish.
York track coach Stan Reddel also believes Driggs is equipped mentally and physically to beat Verzbicas, though he insists that Driggs' best event for the future is the 1,600. He ran the event in 4:08 last June, which translates to 4:02 or 4:03 this spring, according to Reddel. "That's a pretty exciting place to be," he said.
Only two other runners in York history have bettered Driggs' 4:08--Donald Sage and Jim White. "Not many kids ever break 4:10 before their senior year or ever break it. He is only the fourth kid to break 4:10 at York and the others did it as seniors. So Driggs is ahead of their pace," the coach said.
"He is the most fluid of any runner we have had, the one who makes it look the easiest," said Reddel, who has been York's track coach since 2001. "At 5-10, he looks like a classic distance runner when he steps on the track. He has a great finishing kick. He can close in the last 400. His tendency is to run smart, not take an early lead and try to burn out the other kids. He knows most kids don't have his closing speed."
On Saturday in Peoria, Virgin, Verzbicas and everybody else will have a chance to see for themselves.