Mike Recek of No. 6 Westminster does not like to lose, but coming in second in a recent race may have saved his season.
After having a nearly perfect season last year -- winning every race but one en route to a state championship -- Recek struggled at the start this year. He sprained an ankle in gym class, and began the season by finishing 29th and fifth in two of his first three races.
In his next race, he came in second, losing to Jonathan Hayes of Linganore. Westminster coach Jim Gilford had a long talk with Recek -- and later with his teammates -- after the race. Gilford said he could see that the senior was putting too much pressure on himself.
"I explained that the whole season was not on his shoulders," said Gilford. "I told him that the team was doing very well, and that he needed to start enjoying himself."
Recek listened to his coach. He started having fun -- and making life miserable for Westminster opponents. Recek won his last two races, with little trouble, and said he's back on track.
The senior said he felt a lot of pressure coming into the season, even before spraining his ankle. He said thoughts of getting into a good college and running plus performing like a state champion in each race dominated his thoughts.
"It seemed like I was going out there thinking that I'm the state champion, and I had to win every race," said Recek.
Injuring his ankle playing flag football just made things worse. Recek said he was not 100 percent for the first race, but still hoped for a top-five finish in the Lebanon Valley Invitational. Instead, he struggled to take 29th.
Recek bounced back to win a dual-meet race at Old Mill before finishing fifth against a tough field at the Westminster Invitational. Hayes -- who Recek beat three times last year -- beat him there, and again in the Owls' next meet in Waynesboro.
Gilford said it was time to talk to Recek. The two had a long discussion -- followed by a team talk -- that soothed Recek's frazzled nerves.
Westminster is one of the favorites for the Class 4A state title, and Gilford and other team members tried hard to convince Recek that the whole season would not turn on his performance.
The words worked. Recek settled down, and now puts less pressure on himself before a race and enjoys himself more. As Gilford said, Recek is once again having fun running.
Earlier this season, he would sit in class and his mind would drift to race strategies instead of classwork. But now, he puts that out of his mind until race time.
"I try to relax a lot more before a race," said Recek. "I just think about going out there and running."
The next race came three days later at South Carroll, and Recek put his new-found relaxation to the test. He passed, breezing to victory -- despite Gilford showing him the wrong turn.
Next came Thomas Johnson last week. Recek nearly set a course record at the Frederick school with a 16:08.
More interesting about his recent turnaround is he's had to battle through another injury.
This past week, doctors discovered Recek has close to a stress fracture of his left shin. He won't be running except on race days, instead doing other training.
But even this doesn't bother Recek. He's staying loose, and said his next goal is to beat Hayes in the Central Maryland Conference championship Saturday at Westminster.
"I'm feeling a lot better than I was four or five meets ago," said Recek. "I'm just going to take it one race at a time. I'm just going to go out and run as hard as I can for as long as I can, and if someone can catch me, they catch me."