Emanuel Villanueva

STRYKER — Not too many days go by where Stryker senior Emanuel Villanueva doesn’t get a run in.

His cross country coaches say they don’t know many kids who love running or work as hard as he does, so much so that they’ve had to teach him over the years that there is a such thing as an easy day.

But Villanueva — who most recently won the individual title at the Buckeye Border Conference Championships with a 5K time of 17:12 on Saturday — said he hasn’t always had such a passion for the sport.

“I never really liked running,” said Villanueva, almost laughing at himself over some of the reasons why. “It was hard to breathe, very tiring and I thought running long distances like the 2-mile was way too long.”

In fact, if it weren’t for his former gym teacher Kevin Beck coming to his house, knocking on the door and asking him to come out for the junior high team in seventh grade, he never would’ve started.

“I just knew the type of person Manny was: extremely hard-working and humble,” Beck said. “Regardless of his talent, I knew those two characteristics would take him very far in whatever he decided to do.”

Villanueva said he originally caved and joined because some of his friends were on the team at the time. But once he got into it, it didn’t take long for him to discover he had some talent in the sport, and after he dropped his 2-mile time from 12:45 in seventh grade to 11:20 in eighth grade, he was hooked.

By the time he got to high school as a freshman in the fall of 2016, Villanueva was already one of Stryker’s top runners, a distinction he’s held all the way through to his senior year.

In track he holds personal bests of 4:36 in the 1600-meter run and 10:13 in the 3200, and he finished the 2019 spring season with a seventh-place podium finish in the 1600 at the Division III regional meet in Tiffin.

Meanwhile, in cross country his personal best time is 16:31 — which he ran earlier this season at the Defiance Early Bird Open — but he isn’t satisfied yet. He hopes to get over the hump this year to advance to the state meet for the first time in his career. He’s made it to the regional meet each of the past two seasons.

He knows he has the talent to get there this year, and might have had the ability the past two seasons, but both Villanueva and his coaches admit that his passion for the sport can sometimes be his downfall. There are times where he overtrains, which wears him out toward the end of the season.

He feels he’s come a long way in that regard, though.

“I used to think a day off was a day where I wasn’t getting better,” Villanueva said. “That’s how my thought process was, but now I realize those days are important to take off.”

Still, his hard-working attitude is one of the things Stryker coach Scott Goodnight appreciates most about Villanueva.

“He gets mad when he can’t run ... and it’s rare to have kids that want to work that hard,” Goodnight said. “I’m going to miss him when he’s gone, because he loves the sport. As coaches, we love the sport, and it’s great to see the kids love it also.”

Something unique to Villanueva’s situation as he trains through his senior year is the fact he’s the only boy on Stryker’s cross country team. As a result, he does most of his training runs by himself, but travels to practice with Liberty Center for harder workouts.

Villanueva says he plans on running at the collegiate level, and at this point has been in talks with both Findlay and Bluffton, two schools he likes because of their small-town feel.

In the meantime, though, as he looks back on his high school career, Villanueva admits it’s weird to think his Stryker running days are almost over, and even weirder to think how they might never have happened if not for Beck’s knock at the door.

“I’m very thankful he did that,” Villanueva said. “I don’t know where I’d be without running.”

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