McGREGOR — Based merely on his introduction to cross country, Ivan Solis didn’t reveal himself to be a future champion.
Back in seventh grade, Solis finished 18th at the district meet. He had joined the cross country team mostly because of his older brother’s influence, and during that year he honestly wasn’t sure how long he would stick with it.
“I never thought I would like it this much, actually,” Solis said. “There was a time where I was, ‘Oh, I don’t like running.’ But I’ve been getting better and better, so I was like, ‘Got to go with it.’”
Go with it. That’s what Solis has done – he just kept going. And along the way, he became one of the top runners in the state.
The McGregor senior left the field behind at the District 19-3A meet in winning the gold medal in mid-October. Two weeks later in Huntsville, he pushed himself to a powerful finish at the Region III-3A meet, moving from second to first in the final 1,000 meters to win the regional title and return to the UIL State Cross Country Championships for the fourth straight year.
“He just gets after it,” McGregor head coach Jason Taylor said. “It’s really been in the last year and a half, he’s just really turned it on and known that he can be one of the elite runners. He’s been good, as a freshman and sophomore, he came in and we knew he had some talent as an eighth grader. He kind of showed that. But then his junior and senior year, his work ethic has just been through the roof and it’s really shown.”
Solis logs 60 miles of training during the season and at least that many during the sweltering summer months in Central Texas. That’s where championship races are won, he said, not during the cool of the fall.
“You have to run over the summer. That’s something you have to do,” Solis said. “That really helps you run more races where you have to work, like at the district you have to advance from there on out.”
The cool thing for Solis is that he’s got plenty of training partners to keep him company. Two years ago when he qualified for state as a sophomore, he did so as an individual. His practice sessions leading up the state meet felt kind of lonely.
But McGregor finished third as a team at the Region III-3A meet, qualifying as a team for the second straight year.
“It feels like a regular practice,” Taylor said. “There’s that weird feeling, like Ivan said, when I’m there and it’s just me and him. Sure, I’m going to push him and, sure, a couple of his buddies will come out and work with him, but it doesn’t feel anything like when you’re out there with your team. It’s just a different kind of run to it.”
McGregor made history this year by qualifying both its boys and girls teams for state, a first for the school. The Lady Bulldogs had made just one previous trip to the state meet, in 2012, when they finished eighth.
Taylor said that this year they were a testament to the power of perseverance. McGregor finished third in the girls race at the district meet, yet kept plugging and battling and not worrying about which teams were ranked ahead of them. They ended up finishing third at regionals to book their itinerary to Round Rock.
“I think that says a lot about what these kids have accomplished and what they’ve made as a program,” Taylor said. “That’s been the last year or two, our influence, as we’ve been losing these runners, we’ve said, ‘OK, are we a program? Or are we just when great runners come through?’”
Solis doesn’t scare easily on the course. At the regional meet he found the pace he wanted and stuck to it until he sensed the time was right to crank his cadence to a legitimate sprint. He had 12 runners ahead of him after the first half-mile of the 5,000-meter race. With a mile to go, he had progressed up to the top five. Then in that last mile he stayed within striking distance of the leader, Mildred’s Zackery Hammond, before making his move with about 1,000 meters to spare.
“I think that was a little earlier than the other guy wanted to go. So he got his separation and he kept it,” Taylor said.
That unflappable demeanor suits Solis well on race day, Taylor added.
“He’ll run his race. That’s the way all the boys are,” the coach said. “The boys started off 70th, we all run as a pack. We’re a band of brothers, that’s our motto. We say, ‘Ivan, go do your thing, and the rest of us run as brothers.’ And all of them came in like boom-boom-boom.
“If you look at the results, 2 through 6 were right on top of each other because they literally ran in a pack about as wide as this table. And they were 70th, 60th, 50th then 40th, and with about a half-mile to go they had all moved into the 30s and were just slowly passing people.”
Solis, who has five first-place finishes and a second in his six senior season meets, wants to surpass his best showing at state, which was a 17th place effort last year. He’d really like to climb up the medal stand to the top five, though he said he wouldn’t be “terribly upset” if he ended up top 10 instead.
Similarly, Taylor hopes that McGregor can finish with the program’s best-ever team showing at state as well. The girls finished eighth in their only appearance in 2012, while the boys program’s top finish was a sixth-place effort. “We’d like to be able to finish better, so both teams can say they were the best ever at McGregor,” Taylor said.
But in some ways, the coach already feels like his teams have won before the race has even begun.
“This is already the best season for us, because we’re one of four programs in the state in 3A that can say that we brought the boys and girls to the state meet,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about that.”