John Rivera kept the reasons for his precipitous drop from Class 4A medal contention to obscurity in the middle of the race at his region championship last year as quiet as he could. Rivera didn’t want to make any excuses as his time ballooned from a personal 5K record of 16:33.80 to 17:43.00 in less than a month.
Partially, it was because he didn’t want to admit the pain in his foot was tied to something as long-lasting as it wound up being. Rivera hoped he was only dealing with a pinched nerve, staving off an MRI until Lakewood Ranch’s 2015 season ended in the Class 4A-Region 2 championship with Rivera running a 17:40.30.
“I was trying to get through district,” Rivera said, “just to get the team to state, hopefully.”
Injuries had ravaged Rivera and the Mustangs too much. A season once seemingly destined for a guaranteed spot in the Class 4A championship fizzled a week early. Rivera finally went to get an MRI, which revealed what he had unfortunately believed: He had been running on a fractured right foot for nearly a month.
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A year later, after a cautious shutdown and risky return led to an uneven rehab, Rivera is back and at full strength — and so is Lakewood Ranch. The Mustangs claimed the Class 4A-Region 2 championship last Saturday and will run for a state championship Saturday at 10:30 a.m. in Tallahassee.
The Lakewood Ranch boys are one of four Manatee County teams that will run for state championships at Apalachee Regional Park. The Mustang girls will run for a 4A title at 9:40 a.m., Saint Stephen’s girls compete in the Class 1A championship at 10:05 a.m. and the Falcon boys race in the 1A championship at 10:55 a.m. Out-of-Door Academy’s Kai Soderberg will also compete in the boys 1A race after finishing 14th in Class 1A-Region 2 to qualify as an individual.
Rivera first felt pain during a race at G.T. Bray Park for the Bradenton Runners Club XC Invitational. Lakewood Ranch skipped the FSU Invitational in Tallahassee for a run closer to home, and Rivera noticed the pain in his foot. He tried to run on it for a few weeks until one of his father’s friends, who happened to be a doctor, gave him an unofficial diagnosis. The foot, he told Rivera, was probably fractured.
“Worst pain of my life, probably,” Rivera said.
The plan for his next seven-plus months became delicate. He went to get an MRI after cross country season ended and set his sights on track and field, where he stars in the 800-meter run.
Rivera knew 2016 wouldn’t be about winning a state title on the track, but as a junior he was worried about getting recruited. His doctor told him to wait until July to return. He came back in April, set on running the Class 4A-District 8 meet in Sarasota.
“I took a huge risk going into running for those six weeks,” Rivera said. “Luckily I didn’t get hurt.”
Rivera ran well enough to finish eighth in 4A and qualify for New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. He now has the luxury of choosing between running at Florida or Mississippi at the next level.
The senior has posted a pair of top-five finishes during the postseason this past month on his way to the state championship and has run as fast as 16:33.20 this year. To contend for a state title or medal, Rivera will have to threaten 16 minutes, which Mustang boys head coach Bryan Thomas knows Rivera is capable of.
Rivera’s season has been marked by caution, making sure he was at full strength by the postseason and ready to post a personal record.
“It’s been a long haul for John,” Thomas said. “He’s in good shape going into the state finals this weekend. It’s a very high hurdle to cross because he’s going to be competing with the best of the best at the state finals, and he’s got a shot to compete with them.”
State cross country schedule
2A girls: 8 a.m.
3A girls: 8:25 a.m.
2A boys: 8:50 a.m.
3A boys: 9:15 a.m.
4A girls: 9:40 a.m.
1A girls: 10:05 a.m.
4A boys: 10:30 a.m.
1A boys: 10:55 a.m.
* — Race includes area runners.