- Scott Powers, Reporter
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NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- Neuqua Valley cross-country runner Aaron Beattie began to get excited about the possibilities of his junior season after finishing fourth at the Culver Invitational last September.
The field had been deep, and his time of 15:57.4 suggested good things were in store for the rest of the fall.
"I was feeling really ready for the season," Beattie said. "Coach [Paul] Vandersteen told me I could probably run up with [our team's top runner] Danny [Pawola]. I was thinking, 'Sweet, awesome.' The next week I got injured."
His 2008 season would never be the same.
Beattie had suffered ilotibial band syndrome, a common runner's injury to the thigh. He didn't run for nearly three weeks and only returned for the state meet. He would finish 30th with a time of 15:04, nearly 20 seconds slower than his sophomore state time.
A year later, Beattie is ready to make up for that lost opportunity. The excitement he once had for his junior season is now what he has for his senior campaign. His focus is helping Neuqua Valley to make another run at a state championship and individually give the program its fourth consecutive top-five finisher.
"I want to be at least top five in the state," Beattie said Tuesday after an hour and a half run. "I'm just going to do as well as I can and hopefully finish in the top five, top three."
So far, Beattie has won every event he has raced in. He took first at the Hornet-Red Devil Invitational with a time of 15:09.3 on Sept. 5. A week later, he finished first at the Peoria Woodruff Invitational, finishing in 14:43.8. He won't race again until conference in nearly two weeks, and that will be followed by regionals, sectionals and state.
From Beattie's two races and his many workouts this season, Vandersteen has seen his top senior runner recapture more than just his ability of last year.
"Aaron is much more confident now than he was with the injury," Vandersteen said. "You can see the difference. He was about 30 seconds slower at state last year than what he normally could have done.
"I think his confidence was hurt. With any runner, if you don't have that confidence, you can't run as well."
Another difference from last season is Beattie is also more knowledgeable about running. Often, he admits even when he should be studying for school, he's on cross-country-related Web sites reading anything and everything about the sport.
"Just reading that stuff fueled my interest in that," Beattie said. "My mentality in running is if you're going to invest all that time and effort and money into it, you might as do all you can to become the best you can."
Vandersteen compares Beattie to former Neuqua Valley state champion and current Stanford star Chris Derrick in that way.
"He's a student of the sport," Vandersteen said of Beattie. "He reads. He reflects a lot. He thinks about what's done He's talented. Genetically, he's got it. It's more than just that. I've seen runners with his talent not reach the level of his success. It's the passion of his. To be an elite distant runner, you have to have the passion for the sport.
"I know it's there because I see his enthusiasm. You just see his approach to things. He knows his competition. He knows every guy in the state and what they've done. He's a stat wizard."
Beattie hopes he can follow in the footsteps of Derrick.
"Chris was just an unbelievable leader and a great example for everybody," Beattie said. "He's going to set the standard basically for any other head guy who comes through here. I'm just trying to do what Chris does. Not what he did in running, but to have that drive and leadership"
Derrick doesn't have much free time these days with his own running career, but he does keep an eye on Neuqua Valley. He is confident that Beattie will keep the program's tradition going.
"I think Aaron has a pretty good head on his shoulders," Derrick said.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.