(Courtesy of Amy Stevens)

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.