Switching Gears / Former soccer player becomes big-time cross-country runner

Columbus North’s Mateo Mendez competes in the Conference Indiana meet at Ceraland, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Paige Grider for The Republic

Mateo Mendez spent the previous two fall seasons as a starting midfielder and forward on Columbus North boys soccer teams.

But this spring, Mendez decided to trade in his soccer cleats for running shoes. Now, the junior is one of the top runners on the No. 1-ranked cross-country team in the state.

“(Giving up soccer) was really hard,” Mendez said. “I talked with my family, and I talked with both coaches about it, and I think I decided how good this program was and how much I’d be involved with it. I did run cross-country in seventh and eighth grade, so it’s nothing new to me.”

As a seventh-grader, Mendez was part of a St. Peter’s team that won the Lutheran School national championship. The next year, as an eighth-grader, he led St. Peter’s to a national runner-up finish.

Mendez also had played travel soccer growing up and decided to play for the Bull Dogs once he reached high school. He won North’s “Top Team Player” award last year and was an honorable-mention All-Area selection.

In the spring, Mendez has continued to run track and play travel soccer. But this spring, he sustained a stress fracture early in the track season and missed the rest of the year.

“It was too much for my body,” Mendez said. “So I had to pick between either soccer or cross-country in the fall because I couldn’t do both anymore.”

So Mendez joined a cross-country team that was coming off a state championship under coach Danny Fisher.

“I think the main thing that drove me was the program that Danny has here,” Mendez said. “I love everything he does with it, and I see everyone in past years where they’ve gone to college, and my future goal is to run in college.”

Mendez hasn’t become just another runner for the powerhouse Bull Dogs. He has been their No. 5 man most of the season, and Saturday, he finished fourth overall in the North Regional at Ceraland, just a tenth of a second behind the second- and third-place runners.

“I knew the potential was there and the talent,” Fisher said. “He’s cut from a good cloth, and we appreciate having him out here. He’s fit right in and added value to the team right from Day 1 and is making his mark on the team this year. I’m very, very impressed for sure. You see it every day in practice with his work ethic and his hard work. Some of the workouts we do, we knew he could probably put together a good 5K.”

He’s done exactly that all season. After running in the low 16s for most of the year, Mendez ran 15 minutes, 54.6 seconds for 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) on Saturday.

“It’s a little bit of a surprise, but I knew I could keep up with some of the top guys, just from running with them in the spring and previous indoor (track) years,” Mendez said. “It was a big surprise to me that I actually broke 16 this year, and I’m still improving on that.”

Mendez ran in a couple of indoor track meets as a freshman, but then the outdoor season, along with other spring sports were canceled because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He went back out for track last season, but that, too, ended early because of the stress fracture.

“Running kind of took over for me, and I just loved to do it over quarantine,” Mendez said. “I’ve always loved to run. It just helped me out a lot to stay motivated and to stay focused. I think I have more potential in this in college than I did with soccer.”

Mendez, who wants to study pre-med in college, isn’t sure where he wants to go following his high school career. But he has another year left, along with two more big meets this season.

The Bull Dogs will compete in the Brown County Semistate at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, and barring a major catastrophe, the state finals Oct. 30 in Terre Haute. Mendez is hoping for a top-25 state finish that would earn him All-State hours and to help North to a second consecutive team title.

“Coming into this program, it was a mindset that we are not the defending state champions,” Mendez said. “We’re not defending anything. But for me at least, because I wasn’t on the team last year, I don’t have any state championships under my belt or anything, so it’s all new to me. So keeping that motivation and that mindset as, ‘We need to come out, and we need to win this thing and just show who we are,’ I think we’re ready for state this year.”