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All-Metro boys cross country runner of the year: Edwardsville's Watts changes course to become an elite runner

All-Metro boys cross country runner of the year: Edwardsville's Watts changes course to become an elite runner

From the 2020 All-Metro boys cross country series
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When Ryan Watts first toured the Edwardsville High School campus, there was one facility that stood out to him.

It wasn't the track and field complex.

Nope, it was the baseball stadium — Tom Pile Field — that gleamed like a diamond in the summer sun.

Ryan Watts, Edwardsville

Ryan Watts, Edwardsville cross country

"Edwardsville is such a nice school and I love it here, but the baseball facilities are insane," Watts said. "I wish I could have played on it once or twice. But coming in it was like, 'Wow, this is awesome, I can't wait to play here.' "

That was the plan.

But Watts went running in another direction — to the cross country and track and field teams.

All of a sudden, after a strong sophomore running campaign, Watts' hopes of pitching on the historic mound were replaced by another dream — to become one of the best runners in school history.

He took a big step toward that goal as a junior this fall by winning the Southwestern Conference, Granite City Regional and Normal Community Sectional championships.

"In all the years that I've coached, I don't know if I've seen a transformation in such a short time," Edwardsville cross country coach George Patrylak said. "He changed from being a good runner to an elite runner."

Southwestern Conference boys race

Edwardsville's Ryan Watts cheers on his team during the Southwestern Conference meet on Saturday, October 3, 2020 at Clinton Hills Conservation Park in Swansea, Ill. Paul Halfacre, STLhighschoolsports.com

Watts, the Post-Dispatch All-Metro boys cross country runner of the year, turned in a personal best time of 14 minutes and 41 seconds while winning the Granite City Regional on Wilson Park's 3-mile course.

Watts originally had visions of joining coach Tim Funkhouser's squad to become part of the third winningest baseball program in state history.

"Before I transferred to Edwardsville, I was not a good cross country runner," Watts said. "I was the 17th guy on a team (West Aurora) that didn't make it out of regionals. But I was always pretty good at baseball."

His tall frame and build made him a perfect fit on the mound. But it was also a position that primed him for the grueling work as a long-distance runner.

"Pitching specifically is all mental and distance running is probably the most mentally challenging sport in the world," Watts said. "It's like the old saying, 'Pitching is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.' "

Watts recorded a then-personal-best clocking of 15:30 during his sophomore season.

He knew then that running was going to be his sport of choice.

"Coach turned me into a 15:30 guy with very minimal training," Watts said. "Once I saw that and the potential that he saw in me, I realized that this could be something special."

Initially, Patrylak was hesitant to have Watts give up baseball.

"I was hoping he wasn't looking at the success and trying to justify scholarship money with success and give up his passion," Patrylak said. "I talked to the family and he loved the team and the program and once he gave that 100 percent buy-in — that's when things took off. His mind became completely focused on the sport."

Southwestern Conference boys race

Edwardsville's Ryan Watt (723) and Geordan Patrylak (719) run ahead of the pack during the Southwestern Conference meet on Saturday, October 3, 2020 at Clinton Hills Conservation Park in Swansea, Ill. Paul Halfacre, STLhighschoolsports.com

Watts took that mental strength he gained from baseball and molded it into something he could use on the cross country course. From digging deep for that extra zip on his fastball, he turned that power into extra speed on the final mile of the course when his body ached and muscles rebelled.

After transferring from West Aurora High midway through his freshman year, Watts said he only ran 70 miles the offseason before his sophomore campaign.

But coming into his junior season, through the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns, Watts said he and his teammates put in more than 600 training miles.

"We held each other accountable, if someone missed a day, we'd call them out and you wouldn't miss another run," Watts said.

In the first race of the season at Granite City, Watts reeled off an eye-popping 15-minute race that stoked the flames of interest from others around the state. 

That interest heightened after he finished third in the unofficial state meet held by ShaZam Racing in Chillicothe, Ill.

"By the end of the season, he went from the 135th returner to third at our unofficial state at ShaZam," Patrylak said. "That's incredibly impressive."

The cross country season officially ended Oct. 31 during the sectional round. Watts took gold in the Class 3A Normal Sectional with a time of 15:21.8.

He was Edwardsville's first sectional champion since 2011.

Watts is turning heads among college coaches as well with his rapid progression.

"I have a couple of schools on my mind," he said. "I want to keep it on the down low, but I'd love to go to a Power Five (conference) school."

Watts has a few more goals in mind before leaving Edwardsville. His main one is to break the school's record of 14:20 set by Stephen Pifer in 2002.

"I'd love to win a state championship in both track and cross country next year," Watts said. "I think that'd solidify a good high school career. I'd love to help get the team into the top 3 next year (at state)."

ALL-METRO BOYS CROSS COUNTRY FIRST TEAM

ALL-METRO BOYS CROSS COUNTRY SECOND TEAM

ALL-METRO BOYS CROSS COUNTRY THIRD TEAM

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