TAMPA — Durant senior John Mitchell had always considered himself a basketball player, until he was coaxed by a friend to join the Cougars cross country team as a way to stay in shape for hoops season.
Mitchell was a natural. He finished fourth in his first cross country meet. Last spring he joined the track team, and his rookie season ended with a Class 3A-4A state title in the 1,600 meters.
That summer, letters from track programs started filling his mailbox. Meanwhile, he looked at his 5-foot-7 frame and realized the odds of taking his basketball career to the next level wasn't promising.
"A reality check," he said with a smile.
This winter, he skipped basketball to focus on running.
"I was good at basketball but not great," Mitchell added. "I was never a leading scorer on my team or anything. I always wanted to go to a big college, and I realized that my best way of getting there wasn't there."
Now, Mitchell has emerged as one of the county's top distance runners. After finishing eighth in the Class 4A state cross country meet in the fall, he has his eyes on winning the 800 and 1,600 meters this spring at states. This past weekend he won both events at the Disney Showcase, a national event that drew more than 1,100 runners.
"John has more room to grow as a runner," Durant distance track coach Mike Gursky said. "He works as hard as any athlete I've ever seen. And he knows that after winning the 1,600 last year that other runners are going to be working 10 percent harder to beat him, so he's working 12 percent harder."
In January, Mitchell committed to Florida, where he will run track and cross country.
But before that, there's a little unfinished business.
"I'm still learning how to train better as a runner," he said. "I'm still learning how to run. There are certain ways you have to run, and I'm just now learning how to run the right way."