Craig Van Leeuwen’s whirlwind visit to San Luis Obispo is almost over. All he needs before he leaves is a state championship.
The Cuesta College sophomore pole vaulter leads one of retiring Cougars coach Jani Johnson’s best teams into the state track and field championships, which begin today at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster.
The team is also led by women’s thrower Christine Weinreich and men’s 5,000-meter runner Travis Hallanan, two former area prep standouts who’ve recovered from devastating injuries to have standout careers at Cuesta.
They, along with fellow state-qualifying men Bryce Van Boxtel and Mike Hollis, and women Nicole Worden, Sara Pizzo and Devon Kelsey helped the Cougars to their best Western State Conference finishes under the eighth-year head coach.
“I’m just really excited we have as many athletes as we do,” said Johnson, who was the first woman to receive a track and field scholarship from Cal Poly in 1977.
“It’s really kind of mixed feelings. I’ve really enjoyed the team we’ve had this year. I’m just really trying to enjoy the moment and have a good time there.”
Van Leeuwen, a Little Falls, N.J., native, has spent just one season at Cuesta and plans on moving back home Monday, after which he’ll go to the college he intended to go to in the first place — Villanova, in nearby Bethlehem, Pa.
Van Leeuwen’s hopes of winning a state title are no joke. His season’s best mark — also tied for the all-time Cuesta record — is 17 feet, 3 inches, and it’s currently the best in the state.
Undefeated on the season, Van Leeuwen enters the meet as the top seed, and only one other vaulter comes in with a better qualifying mark than 16-1.
“My first goal is to win,” Van Leeuwen said. “It doesn’t really matter what height you get as long as you win. Of course, I’d want to jump higher, but I try not to put pressure on myself to jump a certain height.”
Internal pressure is part of what made him uncomfortable with his original college choice, NCAA Division III school Ramapo College of New Jersey.
Van Leeuwen, 22, said he wasn’t much of a collegiate prospect coming out of high school. After graduation, he said he took a year and a half off from school while he continued to train with a high school buddy.
When he cleared 17-5 as an unattached athlete, universities began to notice, including Ramapo, where Van Leeuwen was a Division III All-American after setting school and conference records as a freshman.
He placed fifth at nationals last season after clearing 16-1. His season best was 16-9, but Van Leeuwen was not happy with his marks or his progress. The pressure mounted and he looked to transfer to a different situation.
He linked up with Villanova, but he needed to rehab his grade-point average before he could be accepted there.
So, Van Leeuwen came to Cuesta to get his grades up and to train under pole-vaulting guru Jan Johnson, Jani’s husband and a former Olympic bronze medalist who carries name recognition on the East Coast because of the pole vaulting camps he puts on at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
“Jan is great,” said Van Leeuwen, who took his last Cuesta final this week and expects to stick with Villanova despite getting recruiting attention from Georgia and Virginia Tech.
“Every practice he’s been to, it’s never been about getting frustrated or not having fun. He makes every practice fun. Back at Ramapo, it got to the point where I didn’t want to go to practice anymore.
“I always put a lot of pressure on myself back home, and I’ve learned that no matter what it is, it’s just a sport, too.”