A playful jab from her dad at a track meet convinced Paige Rus to take the next step. Rather, the Erie graduate took a few hundred extra steps every day at the family farm. The sweat equity she built scaling the grain bin every day paid dividends in the form of three outstanding seasons, capped by a track campaign for the ages.
For Paige Rus, the grain bin on her family’s farm near Albany holds a lot more value than simply a place to store grain. It’s where a champion was built.
It is exactly 53 steps from the bottom of the bin to the top, and starting last summer, Rus would do sprints up those steps most days in sets of 10. Five times she would race to the top step by step, and five times she would skip every other step.
The result was an athlete who was ready to take that extra step her senior year. She led the Erie volleyball and basketball teams to banner seasons, then capped off her senior year by guiding the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers to second place in the Class 1A state track meet.
Rus earned four medals at the track finals, highlighted by a state championship in the triple jump. None of that would have possible, in all likelihood, without her grain bin workouts.
“When I get to the top after my 10th one, I’d be bent over, gasping for air, and I’d say to myself, ‘This is what makes you a state champion,’ “ said Rus, tears streaming down her cheeks at the thought of what she accomplished. “It really did.”
A commitment to excellence, both on and off the playing field, and an ability to deliver for whatever team she led, make Rus the Sauk Valley Media Female Athlete of the Year for 2012-13.
“Sport after sport, you wouldn’t think you could top the accomplishments and feelings, and ending it with a second-at-state track trophy, it just kind of blew everything away,” Rus said. “I’m just really grateful for this senior year.”
Rus made a commitment to make the most out of her senior season last summer, with the pounding away at the grain bin steps, as well as a change in her diet.
With the exception of perhaps a few sips of Gatorade, for a little burst of energy, she swore off sugary drinks, and has gulped down endless glasses and/or bottles of water. A can of Coke? Out of the question.
Rus already loved all kinds of vegetables, so eating healthy was never an issue.
“I kind of would get teased at school when I brought my lunch boxes and it would have vegetables and salmon, or something weird, but it paid off,” Rus said.
An admittedly shy person, the 5-foot-9 Rus was able to unleash her inner beast on the volleyball court. She was a 3-year starter for the Cardinals, and finished with 206 kills and 69 blocks as a senior middle blocker to lead her team to a 26-10 record, including an Erie Regional championship.
“It’s a really great feeling when you can slam the ball down on the court, or block someone,” Rus said. “You just can’t top that feeling of adrenaline that you get.”
The volleyball success was a long time coming. She endured losing, frustrating seasons as a freshman and a sophomore, then things began to turn around under the third coach she played for, Alicia Murphy, the past 2 years.
“She’s the reason for the success we had, and winning the regional title,” Rus said. “That was really fun, and one of the best memories I’ll remember is the Rage [Erie’s student cheering section] storming the court after the regional championship game. That was so cool.”
Rus nearly got to experience that in basketball as well, as the Cardinals pushed their neighboring rivals, Prophetstown, to the brink in the finals of the Polo Regional before dropping a 36-31 decision. Still, Erie finished with a 20-10 mark, and Rus contributed 8.4 points per game.
Her impact went well beyond statistics, however. She coordinated summer activities for the Cardinals, making sure everyone got involved. When the season began, she was the focal point of opposing defenses, but not afraid to take the biggest shots in the toughest spots, and always striving to improve her overall game.
“Her weakness was always her defense, rebounding and being aggressive,” Erie girls basketball coach Brian Howell said. “By the end of the season, she was grabbing eight, nine rebounds a night, and was one of our best defensive players. I think all of the other girls saw how hard Paige worked to improve, and they realized they needed to pick up their games.”
Prophetstown coach Don Robinson knew it would be no picnic tangling with Erie in the regional final. The Cardinals’ basketball roster was full of girls, including Rus, he would soon be working with as the Erie-Prophetstown girls track coach.
“It’s been hard, because I’m pretty close to those Erie girls in track,” Robinson said. “They work hard. They listen. They try hard for me. Then to compete against them in a conference game or for a regional title, that is hard. It’s one of the hardest things for me to do as a coach.”
Rus could have mailed it in the spring of her senior season and still have had a track career of note. She qualified for state as a sophomore in the triple jump, but managed just a leap of 33 feet, 5 inches in the preliminaries, after having gone 35-1 3/4 at the sectional.
As a junior, Rus again made it to state in the triple jump, and this time made the most of it. She placed fourth with a distance of 35-7 1/4, and also ran a leg for the 800 relay team that finished ninth in 1:48.08.
That was a mere prelude to what was to come. She earned four medals at the Illinois Prep Top Times indoor meet this spring, including wins in the 800- and 1,600-meter relays, to help the Panthers squeak past Decatur St. Teresa 37.5 - 37 to win the team title.
At the Sterling Night Relays, Rus went 36-1 in the triple jump to break the school record of 35-9 1/4 by Angie Keag. Rus went 36-5 the same night to break her own record.
The Panthers cruised to a team win in the Three Rivers Conference meet, with Rus winning four events (high jump, triple jump, 800 relay and 1,600 relay), and those feats were duplicated at the Erie Sectional.
At state, Rus raised her game to another level. She posted a personal best of 36-9 1/2 in the triple jump preliminaries, a distance that held up through the finals 2 days later.
In the high jump, an event Rus took on at the behest of Robinson to score more team points, she equaled her personal best with a leap of 5-4 to place fourth – and it was much more satisfying than the first time she cleared that height. That was at the 2012 Bureau Valley Sectional, when the bar had a noticeable sag in the middle and heights cleared were questionable.
Robinson worked closely with Rus in the high jump. At each practice, she would take five jumps, each at lower heights, and they would go over the fine points of the leaps.
“I think the most difficult thing is getting the exact turn every time,” Rus said. “When you run up and turn toward the bar, I could feel if I was going to have a good jump by the way I turned. If I had a bad turn, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Before state, we really focused on my turn point, and I think that helped me get 5-4.”
It was within 1 inch of the E-P school record of 5-5, set by Julie Robinson, Don’s daughter, in 1999.
Rus was also part of two relays that blazed to two school record times at state. She was joined by Courtney Cobert, younger sister Peyton Rus and Rachel Cobert to place third in the 800 relay in 1:44.03. Paige Rus, the Cobert sisters and Corrie Reiley then placed second in the 1,600 relay in 4:02.22.
Paige Rus was the only senior among the relay corps, and took it upon herself to provide guidance for her younger teammates.
“I really felt like I had to take on a leadership role, which is out of my comfort zone,” Rus said. “It was fun being able to mentor my sister and the other girls, and have a relationship with younger kids I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”
One of coach Robinson’s track workouts involves a series of 10 100-meter sprints. At the end of each sprint, Paige Rus introduced a clapping exercise as a way to count down what could be a tiresome, tedious drill, to keep everyone’s spirits up.
“Track is a really grueling sport,” Rus said.”Running is usually other sport’s punishment, so to do track, you really have to have a love and determination to do it. It can get challenging when all you’re doing is running and hard workouts, so I hope that I did instill a good example.”
Rus will attend Monmouth College in the fall, with plans to become a dietician or a personal trainer. She’ll also run track for the Fighting Scots, with her emphasis being the triple jump and high jump, but she plans to tone down her involvement a bit.
“I’m not going to put as much stress on myself as I have in high school,” Rus said. “I’m just going to try to do the best that I can, and try to further my distances and heights, but I’m not going to beat myself up about anything. It’s more just for the fun of it.”
In the meantime, she’ll be chilling at the family farm. She’ll happily hop on an ATV to run a sandwich out to her dad, Jim, if he’s in a field tending to corn and soybeans. She is in charge of a large strawberry patch, and is looking forward to baking some pies.
“I love being a farm girl, and I would never want to live in the city,” Rus said. “I like to get dirty and mess around out there. It’s nice to live in the country, and I have miles and miles to run and train.”
Rus also plans on catching up on television shows via Netflix, with Prison Break, Pretty Little Liars, the Bachelorette and Duck Dynasty being her favorites. On sunny days, she’ll work on her tan.
She might even find some time to shoot baskets with her dad. A hoop nailed to the side of the barn has been replaced by a portable basket in the barn, and Jim was tough to beat whenever they played HORSE or bump, which tests free-throw shooting ability.
“He’s a competitor, and he never let me or Peyton just win a game,” Rus said. “We had to earn it.”
Jim Rus finished third at state in the long jump in 1982, and was third in the long jump and triple jump the following year. He passed on those good track genes to his daughters, and also a bit of inspiration.
“One time we were at a meet and my dad said, ‘You need to strengthen your legs up. Look at those girls’ legs,’” Paige Rus said. “My dad has chicken legs, so it kind of runs in the family. That really encouraged me to get some meat on my legs.”
High school: Erie
Family: Parents, Jim and Erika; sister, Peyton
FYI: 3-sport standout (volleyball, basketball and track) for Cardinals. ... Won triple jump at Class 1A state track meet, as well as three other medals. ... Had a 4.25 grade point average and ranked in top five in her senior class