Keeping up with Jones

If all had gone according to plan, Neil Jones wouldn't be at Glendale Community College this year. He likely would be several times zones away right now and certainly wouldn't be spending the spring becoming a rising star for the Vaqueros men's track and field team.

But plans often change and for Jones, a Crescenta Valley High graduate, that meant delaying the two-year period of missionary service that he has spent much of his young life preparing for as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I wasn't ready then," says Jones, a sophomore and returning track athlete. "I was a little immature and kind of didn't know what I wanted, but I think I found my stride this year."

Jones, who originally planned to leave for his mission after completing his freshman year at Glendale, says he is fully prepared to perform his service now and he is set to leave for Siberia in June. But coming to terms with his calling wasn't the only breakthrough Jones made during his sophomore year, as he seems to be hitting his full stride on the track, as well.

"We thought he was going to leave and go on his mission, but he didn't feel like he was ready," Vaqueros Coach Eddie Lopez said. "He decided to stay and I'm happy he did because he's really just developing into one of the top junior college middle-distance runners in the state, probably in the country."

Jones will look to prove just that in the Vaqueros' biggest meets of the season over the next several weeks, beginning with today's Western State Conference Championships at Bakersfield College and continuing through the Southern California Championships and quite possibly the state meet.

He's already qualified in the 800 meters and the 1,500 for the WSC finals, where he will try to continue the stellar season he's enjoyed thus far in both.

"I want to make it to state, I'm pretty sure I will," Jones says. "If I can win a title, that would be great, too."

Jones currently owns the third-best time among all California Community College athletes in the 1,500 (3 minutes 54.09 seconds) and the fourth-best time in the state in the 800 (1:53.07).

After making it to the Southern California Championships in the 800 last year, when his best time of the season was a 1:56.19 at the WSC finals, Jones has gone under that mark four times this season. He only ran the 1,500 five times as a freshman, but never came close to breaking 4:00, whereas this year, he has done so seven out of eight times.

"I'm pretty much really surprised," Jones says. "As far as track goes this year, compared to last year, it's nowhere even close as far as the times I'm hitting."

Jones first broke 1:55 in the 800 at the Northridge Invitational on March 12. He then posted a 1:55.62 at the 53rd annual Mount San Antonio College Relays on April 9 before setting his personal and season-best at the Bryan Clay Invitational on April 15.

He also set his season-best mark in the 1,500 at Mt. SAC, the third consecutive meet in which he dropped time in the event.

Success has fueled Jones' confidence, as well as his ascent to the top of the state rankings.

"It's the confidence you can do it," Jones says. "Each time you show up on the track I honestly feel like I can get faster and it's not going to be as hard as I think. I get on that track and it's business and it's personal.

"It's like you're putting your soul on the line, but I have an inner belief in me and my ability that it's going to be a piece of cake to lower that time even more and more. …Last year I kind of had that doubt, but this time, I can step on that line and I can be confident and I'm relaxed, completely relaxed out there. I love being out there, it's fun."

The decision to postpone his mission set the stage for Jones' big sophomore year, but the colossal drop in times wasn't a result of Jones simply showing up.

"It all started in cross country when he broke 21 minutes for four miles at Oxnard," Lopez said. "His maturity level has just increased."

Jones had a strong cross-country season and made the commitment to boost his practice regimen heading into track season, mainly by adding an extra day of running, even though it at first presented a conflict with his religious beliefs.

"Running on Sundays has helped," Jones says. "I've bought into Coach Lopez' idea of running Sunday. I usually don't run Sunday, last year I didn't, but for some reason I did this year and it's turned out. It's helped out a lot, so I'm grateful for it, too.

"I kind of got peer-pressured into it, but I tried it out and I don't really look at it as being work on the Sabbath, it's more of a hobby, just something I love doing."

Lopez says Jones hasn't only bought into the concept of running extra days, but has become an example for his teammates and is now quick to point out to others that if they want to see results on the track they must put in the necessary work on off-days.

Teammate Adrian Anderson has practiced with Jones this season and has noticed the difference an improved work ethic has made in Jones' races.

"He's one of the hardest workers I've seen out there, pretty much," Anderson says. "At races, he's more focused. He's just relaxed all the time, he's not too nervous about the race because he prepares.

"He's improved a lot from when we had first seen him, so everybody [on the team] has been so excited about him."

Once Jones' breakout track season ends, his running figures to be put on ice for a while — literally.

Jones will spend the next two years in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia, known for its severely cold winters. He will spend his time proselytizing, teaching English classes and performing humanitarian work when needed.

"They're sending a Southern California boy to one of the coldest places on earth," Jones says. "I'd like to say I'm ready — I think spiritually I am — physically, no, but I think I have a good attitude. I'm excited.

"Running does prepare me for [the mission] because it teaches you dedication, it teaches you hard work. Even though things get rough, things get hard, it's always worth it in the end."

Ultimately, Jones hopes to reconnect with running at some point, as a big part of his future plans is to attend Brigham Young University, as several generations of his family have done.

"That's been my goal from the beginning," Jones says of attending BYU. "I want to go to the school that my family has gone to and I feel like it's my calling to go to BYU."

Once his season is over, it may be a while before Jones races again and, starting with the WSC finals, every second will count in the quest to drop even further and go out a winner.

"This is a great way to end a wonderful experience here in Glendale, it's been great," Jones says. "Not a lot of people get to honestly say they get to do what I've done, but I'm just grateful I'm the one who's able to have these experiences."

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