Junior Mike Heller leads the pack in cross-country

The+Kent+State+Mens+%26amp%3B+Womens+Cross+Country+Teams+compete+in+the+Tommy+Evans+Invitational+at+Firestone+Metro+Park+Sept.+8th%2C+2011+in+Akron.+Photo+by+Matthew+Vern+Bliss.

The Kent State Men’s & Women’s Cross Country Teams compete in the Tommy Evans Invitational at Firestone Metro Park Sept. 8th, 2011 in Akron. Photo by Matthew Vern Bliss.

Grant Engle

Heller’s illustrious career

  • Four top 5 finishes out of five tournaments in 2011
  • Top 10 in all five tournaments in 2011
  • First Team All-MAC 2011
  • Ran for 2009 MAC Championship team at Kent State
  • Second Team All-MAC in 2009
  • Academic All-Ohio as a senior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School
  • Set Stow-Munroe Falls High School record with 4:13.00 in 1,600 meters
  • Finished 32nd in Ohio State Cross-Country Championships as a senior in 2007

Redshirt junior Mike Heller finished in the top 10 of every race the Kent State men’s cross-country team has competed in during the 2011 season.

Heller started his cross-country career as a senior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School. He had previously played basketball “his whole life,” but an unforeseen circumstance steered him toward competitive running.

“I played freshman and JV basketball,” Heller remembered. “But I didn’t make the varsity team my junior year, and I really wanted a letter before I graduated.”

Heller made the track team and “ran pretty well throughout the season.” However, Heller said the running style in track was different than basketball.

“I would finish near the top during most of the basketball conditioning drills,” Heller said. “But running track was pretty hardcore at first.”

Many of Heller’s track teammates had told him that he should run cross-country as a senior to stay in shape for the track season. Heller said he had a good idea where he could get some insight on the sport.

Bob Heller, Mike’s father, was a team captain on the Kutztown State University cross-country team in 1981. Bob also coached the Kutztown cross-country team from 1984-1990. Bob was named the East Region Coach of the Year in 1988, when Kutztown reached its first-ever trip to the Division II Championships.

He went on to become an associate athletic director at Kent State in 1999. Bob worked at Kent State for 11 years, the last five as the senior associate athletic director.

Bob said that he could tell relatively early in Mike’s running career that he had the ability to run for a Division I university.

“It happened near the end of his senior season,” Bob said. “He placed really well at the regional meet, and it was reinforced when he had a good track season.”

Coaches in every sport have been known to use some unusual motivational techniques and strategies with their athletes. Bob used his experience as a coach to help Mike while spending quality time with his son.

“We would go up to the Cuyahoga Valley to run,” Bob said. “There was value in that because I knew there were other high school runners up there training and I wanted Mike to see that.”

“I would take Mike to Fisher’s Café and Pub after we would run the towpath,” Bob said. “They have the best blueberry pancakes. When I would tell Mike we were going to run the towpath that morning, he would always ask, ‘can we get some blueberry pancakes afterward?’”

Bob said it was nice for their relationship because Mike knew he was sharing information with him as a coach and father.

Although his cross-country career was still in the embryonic stage, Mike said he wasn’t satisfied with his 32nd-place finish at the Division I Ohio State Cross-Country Championships his senior year.

#KWcrosscountry

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Despite being disappointed with the way his high school career ended, Mike said he wasn’t surprised when he received a call from Kent State Head Coach Mark Croghan.

“My dad said to expect a call from Coach Croghan,” Mike recalled. “I was so new to the sport of running that I didn’t quite understand recruiting.”

Mike said that he didn’t consider any other universities, as he had mostly received a “few letters from some Division II and Division III schools.”

Mike joined the Flashes and was redshirted his freshman year, meaning he wouldn’t compete for the Flashes but maintained four years of eligibility, a situation that Mike was slightly apprehensive about at first.

“I was a little nervous,” Mike said. “I thought it would be boring. But in the long run it was the best thing for me. I got to learn a lot from the older guys in practice.”

Mike would see his first competitive collegiate competition in the fall of 2009, and Croghan said Mike didn’t have a lot of difficulty making his mark.

“He came in a little green,” Croghan said. “But he learned during his redshirt year, and stepped right in and helped us win the MAC championship in 2009.”

Mike said he knew the upperclassmen on the team were very talented, and that he needed to be a strong competitor as the fourth runner for the team to reach its potential in 2009.

“Everyone was so confident,” Mike said. “We knew it was our mission to win. It was win the MAC or bust.”

Contact Grant Engle at [email protected].