Against all odds: Monache's Ivan Mendez went back-to-back as Valley runner-up and state qualifier
In the case of Ivan Mendez, the old adage “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” is right on the nose for the Monache High School runner.
Mendez dominated the track this season, winning Area, taking second at the Central Section Championship meet then becoming one of just two area athletes to make it to the CIF State Championship meet.
His success this season made him The Recorder’s 2018-19 Orange Belt Track and Field Athlete of the Year, but it was his perseverance to get back to state in the face of adversity that makes him stand out.
“I wasn’t sick!” Mendez declared with a smile and a chuckle.
For those who know Mendez — the back-to-back Orange Belt Cross Country Runner of the Year and now two-time Track and Field Athlete of the Year — him not getting sick is a big deal.
In the past two cross country seasons, Mendez was sick or got sick coming into the postseason. But this year, he started taking allergy medicine and avoided illness. Or so he thought.
During a workout two weeks prior to the team’s first official meet, Mendez said he started to feel ill.
“I was feeling sick that day, and during the whole workout, I wasn’t hitting the times I wanted,” he said. “Even though I was on pace, I knew I could still do more and I just kind of felt fatigued. After the workout, I was doing a cool down and I noticed my knee was kind of bugging me. I thought it was just cause I was feeling achy cause of the cold or whatever.”
Following practice, Mendez went to Target for some medicine for himself and pumpkin seeds for his dad. While picking the seeds up from the bottom shelf, Mendez injured himself.
“I reached down and I kind of put all my weight on the knee that was bugging me to see if I could pop it to make it feel better and afterwards I just heard two pops and it didn’t feel better,” he said. “If anything it hurt worse. And so the pain didn’t go away and I was freaking out cause I didn’t know if I tore something. That night I just woke up in pain. My leg was swelling really bad. It was terrible.”
By the morning Mendez could barely walk and he realized he needed to take some time off if he had any chance at competing this season.
“I tried to stay calm and not freak out,” Mendez said. “I didn’t want it to be like ‘Oh my gosh, my season’s over.’ I wanted to get over it as quick as possible but also be careful. We did exactly that. I talked to [MHS Coach Seth] Ishida and we made a plan of how I’d recover and what I could do. And it worked out just fine.”
He was able to return and compete in Monache’s first meet in February. But in late March, Mendez pushed himself a little too hard in the team’s East Yosemite League meet against Tulare Western. He won all three of his events — the 800 (2 minutes, 5.5 seconds), 1,600 (4:41.34) and 3,200-meter (10:25.21) runs — but he re-aggravated his knee in doing so.
“I felt like when he got hurt from Western, I thought he was on the road to just getting farther and farther and farther, and faster and faster,” Ishida said. “So it was always like, we felt like we had to hold back a little bit. You can only take so many little hiccups before it comes back to haunt you. But you want to be supremely prepared. I always felt like we were playing catch up to get to the next level.”
The next level was state, and rather than dwell on the setback, Mendez hardened his focus on getting back there for a second year in a row.
“We set a goal,” Mendez said. “I realized I needed to get straight to Valley, get out of Valley, make it to State. That was my number one goal, to be at State this year. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well.”
Against all odds, Mendez rose to the occasion as usual.
Dropping his other two events and concentrating solely on the 3,200 like he did the year before, he won the CIF Central Section Central East Area Championship by over 10 seconds with a time of 9:36.44 and advanced to Valley.
Competing in the pouring rain of Valley, Mendez ran a personal best 9:23.17 for second place.
“I think I knew I could hit that time like the whole season,” Mendez said. “I definitely think if the conditions were a little better the race would’ve honestly been faster.”
Mendez’s time was 2.1 seconds off Clovis North’s Isaiah Galindo’s first-place 9:21.07, and even though it was his second time being runner-up, Mendez was OK with everything because he was still going to state.
“I knew that I wanted to be a Valley champion but that wasn’t as big of a deal as getting to state,” he said. “ I would’ve honestly been really sad at not going to state this year. The goal is always to win the race but I think the real goal I had was to get out of Valley and go to state.”
In his final state appearance, Mendez finished with a time of 9:33.20 for 24th — the same place he got last year. It was a disappointing finish for him since he had not only set his sights on state, but finishing in the top 10.
“I think when we went to state he just said, ‘I didn’t have the mindset. My mindset to compete for a top 10 was not there,’” Ishida said. “He’s used too — he’ll say, ‘I think I can win it.’ ... It was hard for him mentally for state, not being a 100 percent prepared like he could’ve. He didn’t have the confidence going in.”
Mendez was healthy except for one, very common illness — senioritis.
“I was preparing myself for state really well,” he said. “I thought I did a really good job but I started falling apart at the end of the week. Just so many goodbyes and a lot of emotional stuff happening. Mentally I just wasn’t in that race. I wasn’t focused and I just, I let myself give up.”
He added, “I regret doing that but I’m also excited to start a new season and new beginning at [University of California,] Davis.”
In February, Mendez signed on to run cross country with the NCAA Division I program. He’s already started training for the upcoming season with Aggies by running whenever he gets a chance between his work with the city and at his dad’s automotive repair shop.
Ishida believes that the Davis training routine of short runs and one long run, will help keep Mendez healthier. The coach also said that Mendez continues to grow stronger and fast, and that there's more to come from the young runner.
“I think with him, I think there’s more to him,” Ishida said. “There’s more there. He’s getting better. He’s got everything. The knowledge is there. He knows everything that I know. He knows himself and then he’s going to respond to whatever the training that they give him.”
Mendez and Ishida have fallen in sync in their four years together and they have a trust and knowledge of each other that Mendez values, and will continue to vow, into his time at Davis.
“I still rely on Ishida right now,” Mendez said. “I respect his training and it’s gotten me places I never thought I would reach. And I still look to him as a second dad, kind of to be there for me when I don’t know what to do. And he knows a lot and how to get me to where I need to be. So I’m not ready to let go of his training just yet.”