Signing day: Piepenburg heading to the U of M
Alexandria's Jamie Piepenburg has run thousands of miles over the years to earn the opportunity she got on Wednesday morning.
The senior track and cross country star rewrote the record books at Jefferson High School and on the conference and section levels. Her coaches in Alexandria saw her drive to be special at an early age.
As the years went on and records started to fall, coaches at the Division I level started to notice that too. It became a battle between three programs from the Midwest to earn her signature on national signing day earlier this week. Piepenburg decided over Christmas break where she was going before making it official when she signed to run both track and cross country at the University of Minnesota over offers from Iowa and Iowa State.
"I'm just so grateful for everyone who's helped me get here and for this opportunity," she said. "I think it's a tribute to my hard work, that I have these opportunities after I've worked so hard. Hopefully all the success will continue."
Piepenburg's focus has always been on competing at the highest level. She runs an average of 50 miles a week throughout the year by any means necessary. Her parents' driveway stretches almost one-third of a mile long. She runs up and down that stretch until she meets her desired distance on days when the weather isn't conducive to running in the open.
"I'll do whatever it takes," she said. "We have a treadmill at home that I do use occasionally, but it's definitely not the most exciting. If I have to, I'm down there pounding out the miles...there really is no excuse to not get the miles in. I will find a way to get it done."
Mark Nelsen has been coaching track and cross country in Alexandria since 1980 and said he has never seen anyone work harder. Piepenburg ran in her first state tournament in both sports as an 8th grader. It was at that point that her coaches saw how good she could be if she continued to push herself.
"I thought she had tremendous potential," Nelsen said. "But in my coaching career, I've seen a lot of athletes that have potential. It's almost like a big rock hanging around their neck. Some carry it and some don't. Jamie carried it, threw it off and just continued to strive."
Piepenburg went on to win two state titles in the 3,200-meter run and one in the 1,600 in track. Barring injury, she'll have an opportunity to earn another state title in each of those events this spring.
"She's one of those athletes that's done a lot, not just for the sport here in Alexandria but for our area," girls' track coach Mike Empting said. "For our conference, for our section. She's that type of athlete that sets the bar so high that everybody's chasing her."
Her career in cross country may not have earned her a title but might be equally as impressive. She was named all state five times and improved herself every year. She finished her career in Alexandria by tying a personal-best time of 14:05 at the state meet, falling 0.7 seconds short of a title behind Shakopee's Maria Hauger. It was her second straight runner-up finish to Hauger in the fall.
"Without a doubt, she's raised the bar," Nelsen said of what she's meant to the Alexandria running programs. "You cannot help but watch what she's accomplished and realize that all those things were never an accident. She's shown from one season to the next what training looks like, what hard work looks like, what commitment looks like."
Her drive to reach the highest level has never allowed Piepenburg to settle. Coaches at the University of Minnesota first began recruiting her during a summer camp two years ago. From that point on, it was all about doing whatever it took to get to the Division I level.
"I didn't want to go somewhere I wasn't going to get any faster because I was still winning all the meets," she said. "I wanted to go somewhere that would challenge me."
That's exactly what the Big Ten will do for her. The conference had five teams ranked in the top 30 of the final 2011 women's cross country polls, including the Gophers. Two Big Ten teams are currently ranked in the top 25 of the latest women's indoor track and field polls.
"I think, knowing Jamie's personality, she's going to love that," Empting said. "That's going to drive her even more."
Gopher coaches have told her she will have an opportunity to avoid a redshirt and compete for a spot on both teams starting next spring. It's a lofty challenge for any incoming freshman, but Piepenburg has never been one to set her sights low. She has no intentions of starting now.
"I definitely want to be an All-American," she said. "That's my biggest goal right now. If I keep doing what I'm doing and step up my training even more at the collegiate level, I think I have a very good shot at it. I can't wait to see, hopefully that will come true."