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Lecanto High sophomore Catalina Veldwijk separates herself from the pack in the first mile Saturday, Aug. 28, at the Whispering Pines Invitational.

The number 19 looms large in the mind of Catalina Veldwijk every time she steps on a cross country course this season.

"She’s grown leaps and bounds from last year," Lecanto girls cross country coach Ben Simmons said. "Last year her goals were always centered around running her personal best. This year it’s about running 19s."

Right now, her personal best and a time in the 19-minute range are one and the same. But like her coach said, it’s the goal she’s aiming for as the 2021 campaign has gotten underway.

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"I want to break 19 this season," Veldwijk said. "I have to train really hard with different mile repeat workouts and getting more speed. I have good endurance, I just need to work on my kick."

The Panthers have run two races thus far each of the past two Saturdays, and the sophomore finished first at the Aug. 28 Whispering Pines Invitational with a time of 21:13.78.

Last Saturday, Lecanto participated in the highly competitive Florida Horse Park Invitational in Ocala. Veldwijk placed a respectable 30th, improving her time to 20:44.90.

"It’s going pretty well," Veldwijk said. "I’ve been dealing with some performance anxiety. I’ve been feeling weak at the race, but it’s been going pretty well."

She said the anxiety issues first cropped up during track and field season in the spring. She uses visualization and breathing methods to calm herself down before the race, another testament to her high level of preparation.

"She is easily one of the hardest workers I have," Simmons said. "I’ve never seen someone more committed to learning the sport. She’s vocal about what she needs and what she thinks will make her better."

Her prep cross country career began while she was an eighth-grader at Seven Rivers Christian, after she joined the track team there as a seventh-grader.

Last year she moved on to the Lecanto squad and quickly made a name for herself. The freshman earned a Chronicle Runner of the Year nomination, after posting a first-place 20:58.94 at the district meet and qualifying for states with a seventh-place showing at regionals (20:05.20).

But after regionals, the reality of 2020 caught up to her. She came down with COVID-19 a week before the state meet and never got to compete.

"I was sad and devastated, especially the day of the race. I was so sad the whole day," Veldwijk said.

"It was awful. I felt terrible about it, but it motivated her more for track season," Simmons said. "If it had to happen, I’m glad it happened her freshman year. But it’s good motivation to run even better this year.

"The sky is the limit. She is by far the most invested of any runner I’ve had in five years. She loves the sport so much. I think she’ll get to the low 19s if not high 18s by her senior year."

There are aspirations to run for a Division I college, but that’s still off in the distance. For now she wants another shot to run at states, and she wants senior teammate Alex Garcia to also qualify so they can go together.

In the spring, she’ll look to improve upon her freshman track season in which she was a district champion in the 3,200, and a regional qualifier in that race and the 1,600.

"I’ve ran many, many miles and it has set me up for success," Veldwijk said. "It’s my second year, going into it I’m more knowledgeable I guess you could say.

"… We’ll see what happens. Mainly I want to have fun, but (college) is a goal of mine."

Prep Zone

Get updates and player profiles ahead of Friday's high school games, plus a recap Saturday with stories, photos, video Frequency: Seasonal Twice a week

Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, chris.bernhardt@chronicleonline.com or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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