October 15th, 2019 3:00 PM
Taylor Jurgens (above) has become a state contender in her first year running cross-country at RBHS (photo provided by Lisa Gaynor).
By James Kay
When Blair Jensen walked into Kennelly Athletic Complex three years ago, he thought he was simply there to cheer on Riverside-Brookfield High School's girls soccer team.
That would change moments later when he witnessed one RBHS player flying down the opposite sideline chasing after a 50/50 ball with speed that turns a varsity cross-country coach from a casual spectator into a wide-eyed recruiter.
"All I could think was, 'Who is that? Does she run? She needs to run,'" said Jensen. "I asked around to see if anyone knew and they said, 'Oh, that's Taylor Jurgens.'"
The cross-country world wouldn't get to know that name for three years, but in her first season of running at RBHS, Jurgens finds herself as a state contender who has caught the eyes of college cross-country coaches.
While he wishes that Jurgens ran all four years Riverside-Brookfield, Jensen is just happy that she wound up on the team.
"I always had this saying that the fastest girl on cross-country plays volleyball," said Jensen. "Thankfully, I am not saying that this year."
Outside of Jensen asking the senior every year to join the team, the seed has always been planted for Jurgens to run at the high school level.
Her older sister, Hailey, starred as a state-caliber runner on the team during her four years at RBHS. Taylor would join Hailey, who graduated from RBHS in 2017, on longer runs as a way to prepare for the soccer season and has participated in the Riverside Independence Day 5K multiple times.
Though she loved running, Taylor's desire to play volleyball (and team sports in general) kept her from forming a lethal tandem with her sister on the cross-country team.
However, last spring, Taylor's waning interest in volleyball opened an opportunity for Hailey to try to convince her sister to try out for cross-country.
"I said to her, 'Look, this is a great opportunity to try something new,'" said Hailey. "She's always loved running, and she's really transitioned nicely into this sport."
Her unofficial commitment to cross-country came right before summer break during a bake sale when Jensen approached Taylor and her friends in RBHS' lunchroom. After he made his donation, Taylor casually blew him away with the news of her joining his team.
"I said, 'Thanks for donating, and by the way, I am going to try out for cross-country,'" said Taylor.
"I wasn't planning on saying anything until I saw him. His eyes perked up, and he was surprised and said, 'What?' I repeated it and he was like, 'That's fantastic!' He started talking really fast and he told me to keep the change after receiving his sweets. Me and my friends were laughing after he left."
Even with the verbal commitment from Taylor, Jensen was worried that she wouldn't end up running for him this season, since she was spending the summer in Costa Rica. He sent reminder texts to her and the cross-country group about training regimens for the offseason. Because her trip was at the tail end of summer, Taylor didn't get back home until a week before the season. To make matters worse, she didn't get a chance to train while she was abroad.
"I didn't breathe until after our first meet," said Jensen. "After that I thought, 'OK she is for real.'"
A week before her first meet, Taylor had been dealing with an unknown illness and had to visit the doctor to be tested for strep throat. The tests came back negative and, with the meet only being a two-mile race, she thought she would try to run a few days later.
"I thought, 'Why not?'" said Taylor. "We didn't know what it was, and I thought I could get through it."
It turned out that she made the right decision.
Taylor concluded her first meet with a first-place finish and the two-mile course in 12 minutes, 24 seconds. To add to her triumph, the doctors ended up calling her the next day to tell her that she actually did have strep throat.
"I think I even shocked myself with that race," said Taylor. "I was feeling sick that day, but I also had a lot of jitters before the meet. I just had to settle down and gut it out."
As the season has progressed, Taylor has added multiple top-15 finishes and has respectively come in first and second place in her last two races. Hailey has FaceTimed Taylor before the meets to help with pre-race jitters while offering tips about the courses Hailey used to run through. They even have a friendly rivalry, with Taylor going after Hailey's best times.
"Before this season, I would think about it and tell myself, 'You don't have to be as good as her and [cross country] is going to help with soccer,'" said Taylor. "But now that I've gotten to this point, yeah, I want to get to her times."
While Hailey jokes about hoping Taylor doesn't beat her times, she wishes Taylor had joined the team earlier. Even in the midst of her success, Taylor doesn't have any regrets.
"[Hailey] always nags me about not joining earlier when I talk about running in a positive way," Taylor said while laughing. "Obviously, I regret it a little bit, but I really enjoyed my first couple years of volleyball. It would have been interesting to see how it would have played out."
Considering that college coaches have reached out to Taylor before she has completed her first season of running suggests that the Jurgens sisters would have been a force.
Taylor has been in contact with St. Francis University, Lewis University, Benedictine University and University of Miami. She's also had talks with Duke University about walking on next fall if she continues to improve.
Taylor has aspirations to continue cross-country but only if she can work it around her true passion: marine biology.
"As of right now, I am tempted by all the new things that are coming at me," said Taylor. "It's so flattering to have all these … offers coming at me, but I have to bring myself back to reality sometimes. If cross-country wasn't a part of it, I might not consider some of these schools, since some don't offer marine biology as a major. Anywhere I go, I want to pursue [marine biology]."
As far as this season is concerned, Taylor is focusing on what's in front of her -- regionals. In two weeks, she will get a crack at getting closer to qualifying for state. She wants to get her time down to an 18-minute three-mile time (Hailey's is 18:18 which only spurs the sisters' friendly competition).
Jensen believes that Taylor has the ability to get there.
"RBHS has had two all-state runners in the last 40 years," said Jensen. "Taylor could be RB's third. I hate to say that, because I don't want her to feel any pressure, but I think she is a competitor and she may thrive on challenges."