Michael Wagner’s fast start to this cross country season can be traced to the finish of his junior track season.
That’s when the Mountain Ridge senior, always solid but never one of the upper-echelon distance runners in Arizona, developed the work ethic needed to raise his game.
“He really got serious about wanting to do extremely well at state in track. He wanted to get to the next level, so he started training at a higher level,” Mountain Ridge cross country coach Don Tate said. “He started leading the workouts. And he started doing more running on his own. That’s what led into the summer. He began to believe that ‘if I just put in a bit more running with the talent I have, I can do really well,’”
Wagner showed his improvement Sept. 3 at the Peaks Invitational in Flagstaff, beating a field of top Northern Arizona runners and rivals from nearby O’Connor. He finished at 17:26.2, improving on his 10th place result in the same meet last year.
Tate said Wagner entered the meet motivated after being knocked down at the start of the 2010 race. This time he avoided an early scrum, and caught and passed race favorite Jonathan Yazzie of Chinle with 1,200 meters left.
“It was a huge motivational boost to win Peaks. I wasn’t expecting first place,” Wagner said. “They have a huge advantage because they’ve been training at altitude. It’s not something we’re used to.”
He followed that with another big jump at a Northern Arizona meet. Wagner placed third Saturday at the Ray Wherley Invitational in Prescott, behind Cottonwood Mingus runners Juan Wells and Colin Garttmeier. Again, he placed 10th at this meet in 2010.
Now Wagner and the rest of the Mountain Lions turn their attention to the Stanford Cross Country Invitational Sept. 24 in Palo Alto, Calif. Tate said this is the best team he’s coached in 30 years and he’s excited to see how Wagner and his teammates do against top runners from all over the region.
The Mountain Lions have two runners to push Wagner, sophomore Nick Dale (13th in Flagstaff) and his brother, Steven. The brothers are both seniors, and have been competitive long before they started high school.
“We’re super competitive together,” Wagner said. “He broke his back, and it was a huge setback for him. But he’s bounced back from that and he pushes me in workouts, which I need.”
It’s a safe bet that Wagner won’t finish 29th in the Division I state meet, as he did in 2010. The question is, how far can he climb?
Yuma Cibola junior Bernie Montoya is the prohibitive favorite and defending champion. Phoenix Central senior Orbelin Araujo and Phoenix Desert Vista junior Ryan Dykstra finished in the top 10.
If Wagner can maintain his early improvement, and show well against national competition, he could join these names in the top five.
“He needs to continue what he’s doing and stay healthy,” Tate said. “I think a lot will tell when we go to Stanford because we’ve entered the boys in the top-level race.”
Wagner will see many of the same faces this spring during the track season. His best event is the 1,600 meters, as last year’s sixth-place finish in Division I attests. Montoya is also the defending champion in this event.
Tate said that distance is ideal for Wagner’s combination of speed and racing smarts. Wagner has set a goal to break the school record in the event.
Wagner is able to use his good finishing kick to better effect in track season. But he said he likes both running sports equally and hopes to continue competing in both for college.
“I like track because I like the workouts and I like the faster-paced stuff. I like the actual race (distances),” Wagner said. “Besides that though, I like running something different like cross country. It’s not loops and the same thing over and over.”
While he waits to see if more running is in his future, Wagner knows college is. His grades are good enough to earn consideration from the Naval and Coast Guard Academies.
He said those schools are his top choices and he’s waiting for the application and testing process to the military academies before looking at other schools. Wagner said he’d like to study mechanical or electrical engineering in college.