After Jack Farrell took note of the overcast skies and 65-degree weather that greeted runners at Saturday’s cross-country invitational at Mt. San Antonio College, he immediately predicted a strong race for senior Mike Williamson. But even Farrell, the Thousand Oaks High coach, was surprised by how strong Williamson’s performance turned out to be.
Farrell never expected Williamson to win the team sweepstakes race, considering that the field included runners such as John Coyle of Christian Brothers Academy, a New Jersey schoolboy who has run 8 minutes, 59 seconds for 3,200 meters, and Agoura’s Bryan Dameworth, the defending state Division I champion.
Neither did Farrell expect a school-record time of 15 minutes, 1 second, the fastest time of the meet, over the rugged 3-mile course.
But Williamson both won the race and set the record.
And if Farrell was at once confident and surprised, then first-year assistant Jim Dunlap was almost matter-of-fact about Williamson’s run.
“I was talking to Jim before the race,” Farrell said. “And I told him that I thought Mike was capable of running 15:20. But he gave me this funny look, shook his head and said, ‘Oh, no. He’s going to run a lot faster than that.’ ”
Said Dunlap: “I wasn’t really surprised with his time. . . . He’s been running great workouts, so I knew he was ready to pop a big one.”
The victory stamped Williamson as the favorite for the Southern Section 4-A Division championships at Mt. SAC on Nov. 19 and makes him a legitimate contender for the state Division I title in Fresno on Nov. 26.
“I didn’t really expect to beat Bryan,” Williamson said. “I was shooting more for a top-5 finish.”
The key to Williamson’s victory was his strategy, laid out by Farrell beforehand and executed flawlessly by Williamson. The strategy called for patience. Williamson ran behind the leaders for the first mile and a half, waiting until the second in a series of 3 hills before making his move.
“I knew that the leaders up the switchbacks were usually not the leaders at the end of the race,” Farrell said. “I knew that if Mike could stay close to them for the first two miles, they would be vulnerable to an attack after that.”
Dameworth and sophomore Luis Quintana of Arroyo Grande shared the early lead, but both wilted in the last mile.
“Luckily for me, Bryan didn’t put up much of a fight when I passed him,” Williamson said. “I went by him pretty easily.”
Staying healthy has been the key to Williamson’s successful season. In 1986, he won the frosh-soph division of the Ventura County championships at Moorpark College, but his season ended less than a week later when a stress fracture in his left leg put him out of action before the Marmonte League finals.
And in 1987, Williamson missed the middle of the season because of a stress fracture in his right leg, then struggled when he returned for the Southern Section prelims and championships.
“I knew that he had the talent to be a good cross-country runner,” Farrell said. “It was just a matter of keeping him healthy.”
Williamson has escaped serious injury so far this fall, but he has yet to meet his preseason goal.
“My No. 1 goal before the season was to break 15 minutes at Mt. SAC,” he said. “And I still haven’t accomplished that.”
But if Williamson does reach that milestone, Farrell will not be surprised this time.