FEATURE SJS Finals' Site has Ryan Mitchell's Full Attention

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CIF-SJS Championship Preview

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Catching up on Wednesday to Ryan Mitchell, senior No. 1 runner for the  Davis High School cross country team, was important. The mid-week training day is typically the team's toughest, according to head coach Bill Gregg as his team prepares for a weekend race.

This week, in particular, is critically important. Mitchell, who on Oct. 29 won the Delta League's individual title and won the CIF Sac-Joaquin Subsection Meet's Division 1 race Nov. 5, isn't preparing for just any weekend race. The Blue Devils star is aiming for a strong performance in Saturday's Sac-Joaquin Section Championship at the tactically rugged Willow Hills Reservoir Regional Park course in Folsom.

It's no walk -- or easy run -- in the park.

"I'm not worried about time, it's more about placing," Mitchell acknowledges.

Mitchell is preparing for his fifth career Willow Hills race since 2019 as a Davis HS runner and this will be his third since Nov. 13, 2021. Mitchell finished third overall in the 2021 SJ Section final in 15:48 as then Davis senior Zachary Ayers won it in 15:28.60. Mitchell ran Willow Hills again this Oct. 1 and won the Tom Laythe Invitational in his best-ever time on the course in 15:40.97.

"I'd like to stay around a five flat pace. I know I can start fast, but holding that toward the end of the race is something I need to work on," Mitchell says of Willow Hills. "Timewise, I'm not really too worried, I just want to run it solid. I ran 15:40 at the beginning of this season and that was a race I wasn't too happy with, so I'm hoping I can improve on that."

To do that, he needs to mentally and physically conquer the elements.

"The first mile is hilly, the second mile is quick and the third mile is hilly so it kind of helps to practice being a solid middle miler," Mitchell says. "I don't dislike the course, but I know how much it hurts. I'm kind of just going into it practicing running the middle mile quicker. If I can stay strong on the second and third mile here, I know I can push the whole race to State."

CIF section final courses differ throughout California, such as the large Southern Section holding its prelims and finals at Mt. San Antonio College, a well-known hilly offering in Southern California. Mitchell has run Mt. SAC before, but his personal belief is that Willow Hills is a greater test.

"I feel Willow Hills is harder." he said. "You start quick and go straight to hills and by the time you get to the hills on the third mile you're just dead from that first mile. You never get a chance to feel the flat. To me, you're going from hills to flat to hills, it's just more mentally challenging. Piecing together the whole race gets daunting. The first loop always hurts."

All of the work put into running the section final will be worth it since the reward at stake is a qualifying spot in the CIF-State Championship Meet on Nov. 26 at Woodward Park in Fresno.

Navigating and strategizing for Willow Hills at this stage of the season is important, too. It is an indication of the difference in Mitchell, who has a special year unfolding.

He has crossed the finish line first in seven of nine races, a mix of three-mile and 5000-meter course distances.

"I am looking to finish strong," he says. "In the past, by the time I'd get to the end of the season, I'd be mentally exhausted. This year, though, I've done a good job of keeping perspective and making sure that the most important meet of the season is whatever the last one is."

Gregg, who has coached Davis cross-country teams since 1997, said Mitchell's 2022 season has been a solid one on many fronts.

"The growth and development he's shown in these three years is remarkable," Gregg says. "Ryan understands his leadership role, more by example, but he's more willing to use his words than sit in the background. (Individually), his training has been remarkable, with more volume. Last year in big races, he didn't seem to feel as confident. But this year he's been laying it on the line, he's more confident in his abilities. It's more 'I can do this.' " 

Mitchell's two non-winning races were a second-place finish in the Concord De La Salle Nike Invitational on Sept. 17 and fifth place at the Oct. 8 Clovis Invitational, running a 15:04.20 time at Fresno's Woodward Park, site of the CIF State Championship Meet. 

Mitchell enters the SJS final on a three-race win streak. In 5,000-meter races, Mitchell has won four of five starts. His personal-best time came in the Delta League final in 14:43.10 on the Williams Jessup University Course in Rocklin.

Still, though, winning the SJS final won't be easy. The course isn't the only thing that's tough. The competition is, too, and these runners want to fulfill their goals, too. Top runners alongside Mitchell at last week's CIF Subsection Meet include Folsom's Nathan Short who was second to Mitchell in the Division I meet by just one-tenth of a second; Jesuit's Brandon Moreno was third overall and his team won both the Delta League final and the Subsection Division I team title; and Rocklin's Devin Pereira finished fourth.

If Mitchell does advance to the 2022 State meet, he'll look to improve on a 50th-place finish in 15:58.80 at Woodward Park in 2021. As a freshman, he ran on Davis' 2019 State entry and finished 90th in 16:12.40. The 2020 State Championship race was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Competing in the State Meet is a sign of a great season. Passing the test that is Willow Hills is, too. Mitchell says it would be a thrill to return to Woodward Park in late November.

"I have a lot of confidence to do well this Saturday in order to keep the momentum going and get to State," Mitchell says. "I really like Woodward Park, especially running the first and last mile. People are yelling the whole way and the energy is great. I love that course."

Ryan Blystone is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit.

Photos by James Leash and Dan Tyree