Robbinsville’s Lauren Kroepfl finishes the course at Veterans Park in Hamilton Oct. 18, 2016. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)
Robbinsville’s Lauren Kroepfl finishes the course at Veterans Park in Hamilton Oct. 18, 2016. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

When she was a little kid, Lauren Kroepfl was one of the top pinch-runners on her Robbinsville Little League rec softball team. The way she figured it, running was the same no matter the sport, so she boldly went out for the Pond Road Middle School cross country team in sixth grade.

“I didn’t know it was long distance,” she said, laughing at the memory. “I was one of the fastest girls on the softball team. I heard cross country was running so I joined. When I got there, we started running mile-long tryouts, so that was kind of a surprise.”

Also to her surprise, Kroepfl quickly discovered that she liked it. When she entered Robbinsville High School, she began to take it more seriously, and as a senior, she is one of the top runners not only in Central Jersey this year, but in all of New Jersey, as her time of 18:12 ran at Jamesburg’s Thompson Park ranks third in the state.

As a sophomore, Kroepfl showed glimpses of her potential by finishing sixth in the Mercer County championships, ninth in Central Jersey Group II and 10th in NJSIAA Group II, which qualified her for the Meet of Champions. She finished a distant 45th, but it was a good learning experience to go along with her previous MOC trip in 2013 when the Ravens qualified as a team.

As a junior, Kroepfl made a huge leap.

“I just started to see more overall results coming out of my sophomore year and really thought if I worked really hard, even harder than the year before, that I could really see my potential,” she said. “I’ve had so many great coaches over the years who have really helped me improve.”

She won the 2015 Mercer County meet with a time of 18:25, far and away her best time at Thompson Park to that point. From there, she took second at CJ II (19:16), also at Thompson, finished fourth in Group II (19:06) at Holmdel Park and took eighth in the Meet of Champions (18:38) at Holmdel.

“My ultimate individual goal at the end of last season was to come in Top 10 at the Meet of Champs,” Kroepfl said. “I wasn’t happy with my times for the states and sectionals. I knew, hopefully, I’d kind of keep dropping times as I started tapering my mileage.”

She also had the added advantage of facing better competition at the MOC.

“In groups, you have your people who are way up there, and if they get in front you, you kind of get stuck in no man’s land a little bit, it gets more spread out,” Kroepfl said. “In the Meet of Champs there’s always so many good people around you, and there’s so many people to push you.”

Although cross country is her main interest, Kroepfl also runs winter and spring track and won the CJ II 3200 last spring.

After her breakout cross country season, Kroepfl admitted to feeling some pressure entering her senior year. She did not let it get to her, however.

“We told her a million times there’s no pressure coming from coaches and teammates,” head coach Martine McGrath said. “She thinks everybody thinks she should be at a certain place, but mostly the pressure comes from herself. That’s what happens when you set goals for yourself. We had to sure she knows there’s really no pressure coming from us.”

Entering the Mercer meet on Oct. 28, Kroepfl had compiled strong times and finishes at some big-time meets. It started when she finished second in her race in September’s Bowdoin Cross Country Class in Wappingers Falls, New York, her time of 19:30 falling second overall.

“We don’t doubt any day she goes out on the course, she’ll give it all, and we know when she gets in race situations she knows she can excel,” McGrath said. “After the Bowdoin race, she realized she could reach some of those goals she was setting.”

Kroepfl won her varsity E race at the Shore Coaches Invitational in Holmdel at 18:44, which was the second best mark in the entire meet. She then shattered her PR at the XC Fall Classic at Thompson Park, winning with a time of 18:12. It is the fourth-fastest time in Thompson Park history. She and the Ravens wrapped up the dual meet season by winning the Colonial Valley Conference Patriot Division meet.

In several of those races, Kroepfl was running alone with no one pushing her.

“It was a surprise she ran that fast—we know she can run fast but to do it with no competition was surprising and so impressive,” McGrath said. “We’re hopeful at counties and sectionals she may have some girls around her and have somebody to run with and push her. She’s in a good mental state.”

In looking at her success over the past two seasons, Kroepfl feels winning the Mercer meet as a junior is what ignited her. Although Nottingham star Grace Dwyer missed the event due to injury, Kroepfl overtook West Windsor-Plainsboro South’s Christina Rancan, who was considered the favorite.

“Christina is an amazing runner,” Kroepfl said. “I felt like everything was coming down to that, and I felt if I could stay with Christina for the beginning of it, that later on I could just use my endurance and try to stick it out. It was really exciting. It helped me get myself in the mindset for the rest of the championship season and what I could achieve. It really helped me.”

Despite all that, it was almost like starting over this year, as Kroepfl admitted to some nerves entering the Bowdoin meet. They disappeared quickly.

“That was our first invitational of the year,” said Kroepfl, who hopes to make her college decision in a few weeks. “Once we got back to Holmdel, that’s actually one of my favorite courses. I know what I could do on the course so it gave me a little confidence there. I think getting back in the swing of things, going from shorter track races (in the spring), to the 5K stuff and different courses helped with my confidence.”

As the season’s biggest races approach, Kroepfl is optimistic that both she and the Ravens can place high in the counties, sectionals and states, and reach the Meet of Champions.

“You never want to count anyone out, and I think Lauren is up there with a group of four or five who could win [the MOC],” McGrath said. “She needs to have it in her head that a win could be possible. Just to have that as a goal is good for her to focus on. On the day of the race, you never know how it will shake out. The Meet of Champions is pretty unpredictable, but she certainly has the ability.”