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Giving it her best shot

Forest Grove senior Kristi VandeBergh is hunting for a state title in the shot put after coming up short at last year's Class 6A meet

On a shelf in Kristi VandeBergh's room, next to the trophies and medals she's earned over the years, sit two boxes of plastic forks.

In a perfect world they would be gone, replaced by a gold medal from state. But VandeBergh knows life doesn't always go as planned. The Forest Grove senior won't get caught looking anywhere but ahead as the 2011 track and field season hits its stride.

VandeBergh entered last year's Class 6A Track and Field Championships as one of the top competitors in girls shot put. But a combination of problems tripped her up and forced her to settle for a ninth-place finish.

'Prior to the state meet I had some knee troubles and injuries, not anything serious,' VandeBergh said. 'I was a little inexperienced - it's a really big atmosphere and everybody's watching you. You're in this big old stadium [and] you just want to make everyone proud.'

VandeBergh had only lost the shot put once all season entering the state meet and was coming off a Pacific Conference championship. Her state meet throw of 38 feet, 4¼ inches was nearly two feet shorter than her personal best of 40-2, set less than three weeks earlier at a dual meet with Tigard.

That marked the first time VandeBergh had broken the coveted 40-foot barrier. Later that night, she celebrated her success the only way she knew how.

By forking her coach's lawn.

Dan Lumpkin has coached VandeBergh for five total seasons between track and field and basketball. In that time, plus summer workouts and basketball camps, Lumpkin admits that they've forged a good working relationship.

And VandeBergh knows she's got a long leash.

'Me and my sister dressed in black and wrote '40' in his lawn with plastic forks,' VandeBergh said. 'On the back of his car we wrote 'Unleash the Beast' and he didn't wash it off for months.'

At school the next week, Lumpkin responded by giving VandeBergh two boxes of plastic forks. They came with a note that read, 'This is for when you win state.'

That never came to pass in 2010, but VandeBergh has a chance this season. With one meet under her belt, VandeBergh is ranked fifth in Class 6A for the shot put. She also has this season's eighth-best mark in the discus, which both she and her coaches admit is a secondary event to the shot put.

'She's working really hard to improve her discus ability,' Lumpkin said. 'She's practicing long hours. Last year was really the first year she focused on trying to do the discus.

'I've always heard that it takes about two years before you really learn how to start throwing well. It's a different kind of technique [than the shot put].'

Technique and footwork are key to VandeBergh's success and continued improvement this season. Because she didn't start throwing until her sophomore year, the multi-sport athlete has had less time to learn the unique form of the shot put and even less so with the discus, which she didn't pick up in earnest until her junior year.

VandeBergh was initially successful because of her natural strength. Now it's the details that matter most.

'You've got to put a lot of body motion into the throws,' Forest Grove head track coach Scott McCahon said. 'You can be strong, but if you don't move right it just doesn't click. Any time it's a technical event it takes time and work to increase and improve.'

VandeBergh says poor technique makes it difficult for a thrower to take advantage of her strength. More tentative throws often result.

That's where VandeBergh's pet phrase, 'Unleash the Beast,' comes into play. VandeBergh hopes mastering the mechanics of throwing will give her more confidence that she can put all her strength into the throws while maintaining control of the shot put and discus.

Form is the focus of most of her practice hours. But VandeBergh also benefits from having a twin sister competing in the throws with her. Keri VandeBergh didn't join the track and field team until her junior season, but her progress in the javelin has been quick - her only performance this year set a personal best and currently ranks 10th in the state.

'She's been lifting just as much as me or more,' Kristi said. 'She works really hard and we do compete a lot. I think we've helped each other a lot. We may not say things the way other people would say them, but we let each other know what we think.'

Kristi's vocal leadership - and on-field performance - has made her a natural leader among her peers. This season she was voted a captain of the girls track team.

She also has much more competition to look forward to - next year she will move to Bozeman, Mont., on a track and field scholarship to Montana State University.

VandeBergh's primary event for the Bobcats will be the shot put, but she said the discus might also be in her future along with the hammer throw, a field event not offered at the high school level.

Having a future at the college level alleviates some of the urgency common among athletes in their senior seasons. But Kristi VandeBergh has lofty goals for her last couple months in high school.

She covets the school record for the shot put, which stands at 43 feet, six inches. Reaching that mark would easily put VandeBergh near the top of the state rankings, and it could earn her the gold medal that she craves.

It would also give her a reason to use those forks on her shelf.