Building a name for himself

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Johnson enjoying success in his first cross-country season

Jonathan Hamelin
Sports Editor

When one thinks of the University of Regina Cougars cross-country team, the name Matt Johnson likely does not come to mind.

However, this could change if the 18-year-old Esterhazy product continues turning in more solid performances. Though the season is not yet over, Johnson has already enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign.

Currently, Johnson has clocked three top-ten finishes. In the first event of the season, the U of R Cougar Trot, Johnson finished in sixth. He dropped down to 36th in the University of Minnesota’s Roy Griak Invitational, but rebounded by placing sixth at the University of Saskatchewan Open. At the Minot State Invitational, Johnson was fifth and earned his best finish of the year so far.

“I was pretty confident I’d be here,” noted Johnson, a science student.

“He’s very talented,” offered cross-country head coach Bruce McCannel. “He’s been running very well and he still wants to run faster. He’s a competitive guy and it shows when he’s racing. He wants to finish high in these races.”

According to McCannel, it is uncommon for a rookie to have immediate success in cross-country at the university level. He said it is a “slow developing process.” Past experience has been one of the reasons Johnson has sped up this process. He ran for the Esterhazy high school cross-country team and was able to run some university-level races in Grade 12. In Grade 12, Johnson also had the chance to work with McMaster.

Perhaps the biggest reason has been Johnson’s commitment to practice.

“He’s at practice every day,” said McCannel. “Even before he was on the team he came to the cross-country training camp in the fall to make sure he was ready for the season. Coming in prepared gave him an advantage. He’s got a really good work ethic. Any time an athlete is willing to work hard at practice, they are going to be a good athlete to coach.”

“Especially with team practices, that’s the place where you get better because there are people to push you,” Johnson explained. “If you don’t go there, it’s not to your benefit.”

Looking at the stats from his rookie season so far, Johnson has recorded similar numbers as another current cross-country star: Kelly Wiebe, a fourth-year runner. In his first season, Wiebe had two top-ten finishes. Since that year, Wiebe’s skills have flourished. In 2009, he was named the Canada West runner of the year and finished third in the CIS Championships. This year, Wiebe has finished first in every race.

“They are both very competitive,” McCannel noted of Johnson of Wiebe. “It is important to be a strong mental runner for longer distances. Matt is showing these skills so far. It’s a little early to be comparing them, however.”

“Kelly is an outstanding runner,” said Johnson.

Will Johnson follow Wiebe’s lead and emerge as a dominant runner?

“I hope so,” said McCannel. “He’s running well this year and I think he wants to be one of the top rookies, which would be outstanding for him. He’s a talented athlete and with continued training he could continue to improve.”

“Of course I’d like to be there and to be there would be over and beyond,” Johnson explained. “I just want to worry about myself and continue to improve.”

Johnson noted that he has really bonded with fellow runner Dale Wig – a fifth-year engineering and applied science student. While Johnson noted that the “whole distance team is pretty tight,” Wig has been somewhat of a mentor.

“He’s one of the people that got me to come to the U of R,” said Johnson. “He’s been pushing me in practices and that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing so well this year.”

The Cougars travel to Calgary for the Stewart Cup on Saturday.

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