Jessica Osborne is a typical American teenager.

Osborne is active on social media with TikTok and Instagram accounts. One Direction songs dominate her playlist.

But inside this All-American girl beats the heart of a lion — Three Lions, in fact.

Despite being born in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina, Osborne’s childhood has had a distinctive English flavor to it. The daughter of English parents, Osborne grew up watching the English Premier League with hopes of one day representing her mother and father’s country and wearing the nation’s trademark Three Lions logo.

The Pinewood Prep School (Summerville, S.C.) defender’s dream became a reality this March when she played for England’s U-17 women’s national soccer team in the UEFA Euro qualifying tournament.

Osborne was eligible for the opportunity because her parents, Andrew and Gail, are originally from England. Andrew, 57, had been a striker in Nottingham Forest F.C.’s youth academy program during the late 1970s, while Gail has coached high school soccer in South Carolina since 2005.

“Soccer has always been in Jessica’s blood,” said Gail Osborne, also the head girls’ soccer coach at Pinewood Prep. “Jessica grew up around the game. Her brother played, so she was always going to his games. Obviously, she would love the opportunity to play for the U.S. if that opportunity ever came up, but for some reason playing for the Three Lions has always been her goal.”

“When I was walking through the airports with the English warm-up suits on, with the Three Lions on it, it was like a dream come true for me,” said Osborne, who has verbally committed to play for Auburn beginning in the fall of 2023. “It was surreal. It was so amazing. It’s something I know I’ll never forget. To have the opportunity to play against the best players from every country in Europe was special and I learned a lot, on and off the field.”

In February, the junior got a call from the English coaching staff inviting her for a tryout across the pond. She spent five days competing against the best players from England.

With her fearless style of play, Osborne quickly earned the respect of the English coaching staff and her new teammates.

“They were at the end of their playing cycle, so the team had been together for about a year,” said Osborne, who led Pinewood Prep to the 2021 SCISA state title. “At first, I’m sure they were like, ‘Who is this American girl?’ But by the end of the week, they had welcomed me, and I felt like I was part of their family. I made some really good friends when I was over there.”

Her new English teammates were eager to hear about all things American.

“The English girls were asking her about American slang and jargon,” Gail said. “They exchanged playlists. They were looking at her Instagram account and realizing she lived near the beach. They thought Jessica was so lucky because it’s so warm in Charleston.”

Osborne had previously been to England a handful of times with her parents, visiting relatives and seeing the sights around London. This was more of a business trip. After breaking camp with the team and earning one of 20 spots on the final roster, Osborne flew to Krakow, Poland for international play. It was a tense period as Russia had just invaded Ukraine, which shares a border with Poland.

“I won’t lie, it was kind of scary just thinking about it, but the English coaches did a great job of making us feel very safe,” Osborne said. “We were in our own little bubble and just focused on playing soccer.”

Osborne made an immediate impact on the Three Lions, starting two matches and appearing in another game. England went 2-1 in the qualifier, beating Poland and Croatia, but fell to France and failed to advance to the next round of play this summer.

Osborne said the international style of play, vastly different from anything she has experienced in the United States, made her a better player.

“It’s much more physical and a lot faster,” Osborne said. “It’s very demanding physically and mentally. In addition to the training and games, we spent a lot of time in the classroom between matches, breaking down film and making sure we all were on the same page.”

Osborne, who won a second straight SCISA 3A state title with Pinewood Prep earlier this month, has already been invited back to the English U-18 team for the next cycle, which will take place either this summer or in September.

Andrew Miller has covered high school sports since 1982. Before joining The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in 1989, he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism. 

JAMES ISLAND, S.C. — Hannah Vroon found herself in an unfamiliar position during last spring’s South Caroline state qualifying track and field meet. She was in second place with a couple of laps to go in the 3,200-meter race.

Vroon, a ninth grader at the time, had been among the state’s top distance runners all season. But before the race, James Island Charter High School coach Joe Eshelman had told his star runner to take it easy and not worry about winning. He wanted her to focus only on qualifying for the state meet.

“She was doing everything that I’d asked her to do, everything we talked about pre-race, but I could tell being in second place was killing her,” Eshelman said. “We didn’t want her to push it too hard and not be fresh for the state meet.”

With about 600 meters to go, Eshelman relented and permitted Vroon to go for the victory.

“She got this huge smile on her face,” Eshelman said, “and then just takes off.”

The following week, Vroon captured state titles in the 1,600 -and 3,200-meters and helped lead James Island to the Class AAAA state title. Vroon’s winning 1,600-meter time of 4 minutes, 58 seconds was the fastest by any girl in South Carolina last season and was just three seconds off the state record.

As a sophomore this past fall, Vroon won her second straight individual cross country title, running the state’s fastest time of 18:15 for the 3.1-mile course to lead the Trojans to back-to-back team titles, and in January she was named Gatorade South Carolina Girls Cross Country Player of the Year. Now, she has her sights set on winning more titles and awards during the spring track and field season, which began this month.

“Hannah is kind of an aerobic freak,” James Island cross country coach David Lee said. “She’s the strongest aerobic runner we’ve had in our program, boy or girl. She can really crank out a pace, even on some of her mileage runs. She’s ahead of a lot of our boys.”

Long before she was winning state championships on the track and in cross country, Vroon was an aspiring ballet dancer. At the age of 6, Vroon started taking ballet lessons and fell in love with dancing.

“I got totally hooked on ballet,” Vroon said. “I loved practicing, memorizing the moves and steps and being out there with my friends.”

After six years of ballet lessons and recitals, Vroon traded in her tutu for a pair of soccer cleats and made the area’s elite travel team as a standout midfielder. But the family sport was calling. Vroon’s aunts and uncles were avid runners, and in seventh grade she tried out for — and made — the high school cross country team.

“Hannah caught our eye almost immediately,” Lee said. “You could tell she was special.”

In her first race, she finished first among her teammates, including juniors and seniors. It was then that Vroon figured she might have a future in the sport. Later that season, she finished eighth in the state country championships.

“Her discipline is insane for a girl her age,” Eshelman said. “She’s really hard on herself when she’s had a bad race or a bad day. What we’ve tried to do is let her know that there are going to be bad days. Learn from those and come out stronger the next time.”

One of those bad days came in last December’s Eastbay Cross Country qualifying races in Charlotte, N.C. Coming off a state title just two weeks prior, Vroon finished 28th in a time of 18:05.

“I had been in New York all week, and it took us like 12 hours to drive down to Charlotte,” Vroon said. “It was cold during training that week up in New York, and I didn’t have the right mindset. I hit my time in the first mile and then just fell apart from there.”

Vroon said she’s using that performance as motivation during this spring’s track and field season and beyond. Lee and Eshelman, for what it’s worth, are convinced Vroon can run at the college level.

“We believe in quality over quantity,” Lee said. “We don’t want to destroy her legs in high school. She runs about 25 to 30 miles a week, so if she gets into a program and they can increase her miles, I think she can have a really good college career.”

Andrew Miller has covered high school sports since 1982. Before joining The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in 1989, he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.

Running is deeply embedded in Natalie Cook’s DNA.

Cook’s mother, Melissa Gulli-Cook and her father, Andrew Cook, were All-American distance runners at Texas A&M in the early 2000s. The apple, as the cliché goes, didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Cook, of Flower Mound High School in Flower Mound, Texas, was named the 2021-22 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Player of the Year on Wednesday. Cook joins an impressive group of former award winners who have combined for eight NCAA national championships and five bronze medals.

“I’m in total shock right now. I had no clue I was going to win this amazing award,” Cook said after receiving the trophy. “This is so crazy, it’s insane. It’s such an honor to receive this award, especially considering all the amazing athletes that have won it in the past.”

Cook only needed to look across her dining room table to find her inspiration for running.

Her mother was a champion distance runner for the Aggies, winning four Big 12 conference titles and finishing runner-up in the NCAA 5,000-meter finals in 2001 and 2002. Gulli-Cook qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004 in the 5,000 -and 10,000-meter races, finishing sixth in the 6.2-mile event.

“My mom is amazing. She’s run professionally for New Balance,” Cook said.

Cook’s father is no slouch either. After earning All-American honors in cross country for Texas A&M, he now serves as Natalie’s cross country coach.

The 5-foot-5 senior won two national titles this season, capturing the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships and the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in back-to-back weekends.

Cook’s winning time of 16:03.93 for the 3.1-mile course at RunningLane championships was 19 seconds faster than that of her nearest competitor and was the second-fastest 5,000-meter time in the event’s history. The Oklahoma State signee became the first prep school girl’s runner to win the two culminating national championship races in a single cross country season.

“At the season’s start, Natalie Cook was a top-20 competitor nationally,” said Doug Binder, Editor-in-Chief. “By December, she was the most dominant prep runner in the country. Her progress through the season propelled her to some amazing achievements. She scorched the RunningLane championships course and then beat the strongest field of the year at the national Eastbay Cross Country Championships, which left no doubt about who was the top gun in 2021.”

Cook also won the Texas Class 6A individual state championship in 16:32.4, leading the Jaguars to their second state title in as many years. She added victories at the Eastbay South Regional championships, the Region 1 championships and the District 6 championships, while placing third at the Woodbridge Classic earlier in the season.

“I think the race at the Woodbridge Classic really gave me a lot of confidence,” Cook said. “The final mile at the Eastbay nationals was so tough, so challenging. It wasn’t my best day. My dad really motivated me during the last mile. He was like ‘Come on, Cook. You got this.’ And that really inspired me.”

(Courtesy of Gatorade)

As a kid, Cook was more of a sprinter than a distance runner. It wasn’t until she reached middle school that she began to show off her distance running chops. As an eighth grader, Cook ran a sub 5-minute mile, and as a freshman, she finished fifth overall at the Texas state cross country championships with a time of 17:03.

“I think after I ran my first competitive mile, my parents realized that maybe I was better suited for distance running,” Cook said with a chuckle.

Cook suffered through a slew of leg injuries during her sophomore and junior seasons, including a broken foot, which made running on uneven surfaces especially painful.

As a result, Cook had to cut down on her training regimen. Unlike other elite runners, who run as many as 60 miles per week, Cook was limited to around 20 miles of training a week. She supplemented her runs with daily cardio workouts on an elliptical machine.

“She doesn’t practice on the grass because she broke her foot,” Andrew Cook said. “She does a lot of her work on the track and on the road. The big thing was just to keep her healthy this season, so we had to under-train and focus on some cardio.”

Healthy for the first time in two years, Cook is looking forward to a productive senior track season. She’s aiming to improve on her personal record mile time of 4:43 this spring.

“I prefer track season to cross country because I feel like I do better on the track,” Cook said. “I’m excited to see what I can do this season if I can stay healthy.”

Andrew Miller has covered high school sports since 1982. Before joining The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in 1989, he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.