When Michael Sokoloff entered Chesapeake High as a freshman, one of his first priorities was to join the soccer team.

Now he says getting cut that year was "the best thing that could have happened to me."

The 16-year-old senior since has become engrossed in three sports, serving as a member of the cross country and indoor and outdoor track programs. And though these weren't his initial athletic choices, they have proven nice alternatives.

"After I was cut from soccer, the cross country coach (John McGuire) ask me to run for him," he recalled. "I still wanted to do a sport, so I started running cross country. I was the No. 8 runner, not quite varsity, and I started having fun with it. I decided to stick with it. I thought it was a chance for me to do something."

He made the varsity as a sophomore and has been named captain the past two years.

"Michael's a very hard worker, as hard a worker as you can imagine, almost to the point of over-achieving," McGuire said. "He's a goal-oriented person, and he has as much heart as anybody could have."

Sokoloff also joined the track teams as a freshman, and last week won a gold medal in an indoor distance medley relay in Towson. He ran the first leg of the race, an 800-meter jaunt.

"He doesn't have quite enough speed for shorter distances, and he doesn't seem to adapt well to runs much farther than that," track coach John Gray said. "He goes into what I call a cross-country mode. He's best in the half mile. And he seems to be doing really well this year."

Gray said Sokoloff ranks third in the county in the 800-meter run, no small accomplishment considering the Pasadena resident was stricken with mononucleosis during the cross country season. He missed three weeks of practice, but recovered in time to qualify for the states for the second consecutive year.

He vividly remembers where he finished that day.

"I wish I could forget," he said, laughing. "Fifty-fourth, 10 places down from last year.

"The season was shot after I missed all that practice. When I came back I still wasn't 100 percent. But what brought me back has been working my butt off to get back in shape."

Sokoloff has become somewhat of an expert at comebacks. As a sophomore during the outdoor season, he began experiencing chest pains at various practice sessions. His father had suffered a heart attack less than a year before, and "I wasn't going to take any chances trying to fight through them.

"I had about every heart and chest test imaginable," he said. "They couldn't find anything wrong. The doctor told me there was no way I could run until they found out what it was. He said I had to get a chest X-ray."

This wasn't what Sokoloff wanted to hear, not with the county meet just two days away.

"I was like, 'Look Doc, if I've got to do that, then I'm healthy.

Pretend I never came in.' I didn't think I could get the X-ray by Friday.

But my mom took me up to Mercy Hospital and they found nothing wrong," he said.

With clearance to run in the county meet, Sokoloff won the 800-meter event and finished third in the mile.

Sokoloff said he experienced an occasional "cramp" in his chest last year, but the ache would subside with rest. This year has been relatively pain-free.

"The coaches were wonderful," said Kay Sokoloff, a math teacher at Chesapeake. "They always put Michael's health before anything else."

Mrs. Sokoloff said she and her husband, Len, a guidance counselor at Northeast, still worry about a recurrence of the mononucleosis.

"He trains very hard," she said. "You almost have to tie him down to keep him from running."

"As far as I know, I'm fine now," he said. "I was feeling weak a while ago, but I got some sleep and I was done with that."

Sokoloff recently was accepted to Duke University, where he plans to major in biomedical engineering. He already has made contact with Blue Devils track coach Al Buehler.

"He says if I can get my time for the half-mile under 2 minutes, he would love to have me on the team," said Sokoloff, whose personal best is 2:03. "And if I can get down to 1:55, I will be competitive on the team. I don't see that as being out of reach."

Gray said, "He needs to get down under 1:58 to be able to run at college. His goal this spring should be to get down to that or below. He doesn't have a lot of speed to run those low, low times, but some kids get in fabulous shape and, even though they don't have 50-flat quarter-miler speed, can get down to 1:58."

Sokoloff shouldn't have much difficulty coping academically at the Durham, N.C., school. He ranks third in his class with a 3.78 grade-point average.

"He's one of smartest kids I've ever met, highly intelligent," McGuire said. "If you have a question, he usually has the answer."

He certainly did after being cut from the soccer team.

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