Lawrence High School cross country runner Valandra “Rigatoni” Riggins munches on a bowl of pasta during last year’s sectional meet.

Since carbohydrates are important to a distance runner, Valandra Riggins could not have acquired a better nickname.

As the Lawrence High senior enters the 2018 cross country season, she does so with the moniker of “Rigatoni”, given to her by former track and field teammate Mijah Collier two years ago. It’s kind of a carbs intake-by-osmosis.

“During my sophomore year, we were coming up with food nicknames for the entire team, and Rigatoni just came up because my last name is Riggins,” she said. “I do enjoy pasta. Rigatoni is good. I like it all.”

And coach Liz Guarini likes—make that loves—the nickname.

“When I caught wind of it, I just called her that non-stop last year,” the second-year coach said. “I even took a picture of her eating pasta at the group meet.”

Riggins has another new title as well. It’s called “No. 1 runner” for a Cardinal program that has qualified for the NJSIAA Group III state meet two consecutive seasons. She was No. 2 last year running behind now-graduated Sofia Centeno, who was Lawrence’s top runner in every race.

Guarini feels the fact that Riggins is now leading the way will lift somewhat of a mental burden.

“Now she can be on that pedestal,” the coach said. “Last year hearing how great Sofia is, in her mind she didn’t allow herself to be better than her and I think she could have been. She put the work in and Sofia didn’t train over the summer. It just naturally came to Sofia, where Valandra is constantly kind of building on what she’s doing and trying to get to her potential. So I think removing that equation, she can just run and not worry about ‘Oh where am I compared to her?’ and all that nonsense.”

Once again proving that distance running is mostly mental.

“Oh, 100 percent!” Guarini said. “Think about it, if you’re constantly hearing how great this person is, you’re not gonna tell yourself you can beat them. That’s something she doesn’t have to worry about this year.”

Lest one thinks the coach is playing amateur psychiatrist, leave it to Riggins to verify that diagnosis.

“Maybe a little,” she said when asked if Centeno was holding her back without even trying. “I remember there was this one meet, early on in the season, where I ended up passing her, and I thought ‘This isn’t my place, something must be off, she’s supposed to be in front of me. This is different.’

“Every meet after that I was behind Sofia, I would make sure Sofia and I were not racing each other but Sofia was a little bit ahead, and I was just close enough where I wasn’t too far behind or stepping on her shoes. So I do think that played a factor, but she’s not here this year, so I feel like I’m definitely able to do better.”

Riggins did not begin track until her freshman year and ran the 200 and 400 meters that spring. Coach Tim Collins liked the way she did the 400 and suggested cross country. Riggins gave it a shot, but put in no training the summer prior to her sophomore year.

“I wasn’t that bad at it,” she said. “But I got off to a rough start because transitioning from sprinting is kind of interesting. The training is a lot different.”

‘I remembered that the hard work I put in now will definitely pay off in the end, so that kept me going.’

It’s especially different with no training at all.

“I just came to cross country the first day of practice with no distance under my belt,” Riggins said. “The first meet I ran a 28:02. It was at Mercer County Park, I was at 19 minutes and I remember my coach yelling that I only had a half mile left, and my legs just gave out. I finished but, not without walking.”

It took a while for things to improve.

“I was out of it until about mid-season my sophomore year,” she continued. “The first couple meets I was still adjusting to distance races and cross country in general. I definitely questioned why I was doing it. But I remembered that the hard work I put in now will definitely pay off in the end so that kept me going. I started getting the hang of it and started moving up and, at the end of the season, I got my varsity letter.”

Guarini took over the program last year and needless to say, was taken aback when hearing of Riggins’ sophomore clockings.

“When I saw the times she ran, I was like ‘What!’” the coach said, laughing at the recollection. “I said to her ‘What did you do, walk?’”

That all changed last season, as Riggins logged numerous summer miles entering her junior year. The results were immediately apparent. In the opener, she dropped five minutes off her opening-meet time as a sophomore.

Riggins quickly assumed the No. 2 mantel and was the Cardinals second best finisher (and 19th overall) with a personal best time of 21:02 in the CJ III sectionals at Thompson Park. Centeno set the school record of 20:58 in the same meet. A week later in states, at the more challenging Holmdel Park, she ran a 22:08 and finished third for Lawrence.

“Last summer she really committed to showing up and getting the miles in July,” Guarini said. “It really paid off. It really carried over into the season.”

Riggins put in just as much work, if not more, during this summer. The super-smart senior took the esteemed college prep program PUP (Princeton University Preparatory). She would attend school at the university in the mornings, do homework, go out and train, then do more homework.

“I really had to learn how to manage my summer with PUP assignments and summer training,” she said. “But it’s all worth it.”

Guarini feels Riggins looked good during her training sessions, and foresees a strong senior campaign for her.

“She really kind of makes it look easy the way she runs,” the former Steinert and Rowan standout said. “Watching that growth this past school year just from cross country and seeing it carry over into track, she had way more confidence in herself last spring and it allowed her to do way more things than she thought she could do.

“I think she’s a really tough kid. I think people underestimate her because she’s quiet. She has that factor where she can really take a huge step this year and just do her thing. It’s gonna be an exciting year.”

It could be exciting for the entire team, which returns some promising sophomores and has a total of 11 freshmen and sophs on the roster. Last year was the first time the Lawrence girls reached states for two straight years, and Riggins wants to make it three. She also wants to break Centeno’s school record and eventually get under 19 minutes.

And while Guarini feels Riggins is a better sprinter than distance runner, she also feels Riggins can run cross country in college. Depending on which school she chooses, that could be a possibility, as academics will come first.

“I love cross country a little bit more than track,” she said. “It definitely taught me how to persevere. When you’re running, especially if you’re running on your own, you kind of get bored and really want to stop, especially when your legs hurt and you have a couple more hills to go up. But you gotta persevere, because you can’t really stop in cross country. You gotta push through it.”

If work ethic counts for anything, that should not be a problem.

“I give her a workout and she says ‘OK’ and she goes and does it, which is nice,” Guarini said. “She’s gonna be one of our captains so I’m trying to teach her a better leadership role, she hasn’t had to do that in the past. But she works hard, she’s a great student. She has all the pieces you’re looking for in a student-athlete.”

Including a high-energy nickname.