By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
ALPENA – Mitchell Day, who had a breakout second-place finish in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Cross Country Final last November, is gearing up for what he hopes will be an equally strong track season.
The Alpena junior is one of the state’s top returning 3,200-meter runners. He finished 10th in LP Division 1 a year ago, and followed that up with a second-place finish at the Michigan Indoor Track Series state meet in late February.
“I feel very confident going into spring,” the 16-year-old said. “But I know there’s a lot of work to do, and I’m prepared to do it.”
Day started focusing on track during the winter with workouts designed to build base and improve strength. He said he hopes the results will translate into a faster, stronger kick.
Joe Donajkowski, who coaches the team’s distance runners, said Day is in a good spot, especially when it comes to his endurance.
“He knew he had to put the miles in to get better, and he’s certainly done that,” Donajkowski said. “He has a good base right now. I expect we’ll see some good performances from him throughout the season, as long as he stays healthy.”
Staying healthy is a key. An illness almost cost Day a spot in the MHSAA Final last June.
“I got sick a week or two before the Regional, and missed four or five days of training,” he said. “We were thinking it was walking pneumonia. Thankfully, it wasn’t, but I couldn’t train (properly). I remember the first mile went well, we went through at 4:40, then it hit me like a wall. I struggled to finish and qualify (for the championship meet).”
Day placed fifth at the Regional in 9:38.65, which earned him the 28th seed at the Final. Given time to recover, Day came back and ran nearly 17 seconds faster in a school record 9:21.76 to take 10th in LP Division 1.
That time came as no surprise to coach Bob Bennett, who called Day a “driven” athlete who once he focuses on a goal “gets after it.”
Day also runs the 1,600 meters, as well as relays, but it’s the 3,200 that he enjoys most.
“The 1,600 is too short for my liking,” he said. “The 3,200 gives me a little bit more time to wear out my opponents.”
Day was a dual-sport fall athlete as a freshman and sophomore, splitting his time playing varsity soccer and running cross country. He also played travel soccer during the summer.
But he decided to give up soccer to focus on running.
“We’re happy he went that way, although I don’t know if our athletic director/soccer coach (Tim Storch) was that happy about it,” Bennett said with a laugh.
Day won two of the three Big North Conference cross country jamborees, claimed the Regional, then took second at the MHSAA Final.
Despite that success, he was second team all-conference. In the third and final league jamboree, which counted 50 percent in the team and individual standings, Day was tripped and lost his balance with about a mile to go.
“I was already dealing with an Achilles problem, and I got hit in the Achilles,” he said.
Down he went – and he didn’t get up right away, which proved costly. He finished back in the pack.
“It was frustrating, but it (motivated) me heading into the state meet,” he said.
Day’s training for the Final went well, so well “we knew I was in for a huge PR,” he said.
Initially, Day was hoping to run close to 15:05, but the wind that day made for a slower race.
“The mile splits were 4:50, and then 5:03-5:05, and then back down to 4:47-4:49,” he said. “The wind played a huge factor. A lot of us had to just hide behind a few of the guys and wait for the last three-quarters of a mile to duke it out.”
When it came to the three-quarter mile mark, the lead pack had whittled to include Rockford’s Isaac Harding and Cole Johnson, Grand Rapids Northview’s Enael Woldemichael, Traverse City Central’s Anthony Berry and Day.
Sizing up the leaders, Day didn’t necessarily like his chances.
“Cole Johnson is a 4:10 miler, Anthony is a 4:08, Isaac’s outstanding, so is Enael,” he said. “I was surrounded by some really good talent and I was like, ‘Shoot, I don’t know if I can keep up with these guys the last 1,200 meters. I don’t know if I have that kind of kick in me.’”
Harding eventually surged, and Day went with him.
“I had another gear I didn’t know I had,” he said. “It was second nature to take off with him.”
Harding won in 15:10.4. Day was three seconds back.
“I was happy with how that turned out,” he said. “I realized there was more in me than what I had shown in the past.”
His time of 15:13.4 was 13 seconds faster than his previous best – and it’s helped attract more interest from college recruiters.
Now, Day’s attention is on track, as a lingering winter finally seems to be giving way to spring.
Alpena’s first meet, last week’s Freeland Invitational, was canceled, but once the season finally gets underway, Day said his goal will be fairly simple.
“I just want to make sure I give it my all,” he said. “I’ll be satisfied if I can do that. I don’t really have any times I would like to hit. Sure, I would like to PR, but it’s more about knowing that I put it all out there and had no regrets.”
Bennett expects nothing less from his star runner.
“We just want him to run as well as he can,” Bennett said. “Physically, he’s a little bigger, more mature. Mentally, he’s right on course. We’re hoping he’s going to have a breakout year.”
Just like he had in cross country.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Alpena’s Mitchell Day competes during the fall’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Cross Country Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Day, far left, emerges from the pack during the 3,200-meter championship race at last spring’s MHSAA LP Division 1 Track & Field Final at Rockford. (Photos courtesy of the Day family.)