By JOE STEVENSON – joestevenson@shawmedia.com

Wilkins clearly belongs

CRYSTAL LAKE – Prairie Ridge’s Mitch Wilkins came to a realization in May at the IHSA Class 3A Boys Track and Field State Meet.

Wilkins, who compiled an impressive résumé his first three cross country seasons, did not win a state track medal, but discovered something almost as valuable.

“It opened my eyes that I belong here,” Wilkins said. “In the grand scheme of things, these are 17-year-old kids who go to school and train just like me. I do belong with them. It made me a lot more confident. That was the biggest thing I carried into this [cross country] season.”

Wilkins started the season with a convincing victory at the McHenry County Meet and took off from there. He usually was in the top five at larger invitationals and did not finish behind a local competitor all season. Although Wilkins’ 33rd-place finish Saturday at the Class 3A Boys Cross Country State Meet was disappointing, the rest of his season could not have been much better.

Wilkins was the overwhelming choice as the Northwest Herald Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, selected by the sports staff with input from local coaches. He was the Fox Valley Conference champion by 19 seconds over Crystal Lake Central’s Alex Baker, who also is on the All-Area first team. Central’s Chris Alvarez, Johnsburg’s Dan Fox and Prairie Ridge’s Joe Cowlin round out the first team.

The second team is comprised of Jacobs’ Will Hennessy, Marengo’s Torben Hoffmeyer, McHenry’s Tay Tomal, Cary-Grove’s Dustin Throw and Prairie Ridge’s Adam Procknow.

Wilkins was an honorable-mention selection as a freshman and sophomore, then made the first team last year. He increased his training to 710 miles over the summer (about 70 miles a week), about 60 more than he had run in previous years.

“I trained very hard, and I was confident coming off my state performance in track,” Wilkins said. “It just opened my eyes.”

Wolves coach Judd Shutt said Wilkins’ 1,600-meter preliminary at the state track meet was huge, as Wilkins was 2.5 seconds behind York’s Jack Driggs, the eventual state champion. Wilkins took 13th in the 3,200 and 10th in the 1,600 at the finals.

“He found an extreme level of confidence in track,” Shutt said. “That drove him to his strongest summer of training in four years. His clear goal was to be the best in the Fox Valley Conference and to lead his team to state.”

The Wolves did not qualify for state, but Wilkins, Cowlin and Procknow led them to the FVC Invitational team title and to the FVC Valley Division dual-meet championship.

“[Wilkins] was so consistent all season and ran with great strategy,” Shutt said. “Every big race was another opportunity for him to run against some of the best guys in the state, and have fun racing.”

Wilkins says he was on the fence about running at the next level, but the state track experience inspired him to continue running in college. The recruitment process is still in preliminary stages and Wilkins’ options are very much open.

“The success [at state track] made me realize I want to push myself and run in college,” Wilkins said. “And it helps if I can get some scholarship money for doing it. I’d love to go D-I and run, that’d really be cool.”

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