“Now He is a Martial Artist”/by Elliot Reeder

When Evan Del Rio arrived on the campus of Mississippi College in 2018, he came on as one of the most talented cross country recruits that Mississippi College has ever gotten. MC cross country coach Matthew Reneker said “When Evan signed, I knew that he was super talented…Right away, I knew that Evan was going to be a boundary pusher.” Reneker believed that Del Rio was going to be a building block for him to help build his program on. In his first two years as a Choctaw, Del Rio has lived up to the hype. As a freshman, he was GSC Cross Country Freshman of the year; he was also named All-GSC Second Team. He then made it to the All-GSC First Team as a Sophomore in 2019 as well as the USTFCCA All-South Region team. 

Back at the beginning, Del Rio did not grow up as a competitive runner. His older brother got him into cross country. His brother started running cross country in order to stay in shape for soccer, but enjoyed running, so he made the full switch. Then Del Rio says, “When I came as a freshman in high school, he pretty much made me join the cross country team.” He competed in high school in the athletically-packed state of Texas where he competed for Huntsville High School. He says that the competition level in Texas has helped prepare him immensely for college running. He also said the humidity in his hometown is similar to that in Mississippi.

When it came time for Del Rio to be recruited, MC was his second visit. “I was new to the whole college running scene. My visit here was my second visit. I came for a visit just to get a feel for what a college visit was like. I met Coach Reneker, and he embodied everything that I think a coach should be. The team is a super cool group of guys. Coach Reneker is a phenomenal coach, and I wanted him to help me go through the rest of my running career.”

In terms of why he chose running to pursue, Del Rio jokes that he is not built for football or basketball, but mainly that it is the pureness of running that drew him in. “Having to buckle down and grind at something: I just hooked onto that.”

Del Rio has had two years of growth at MC under Coach Reneker. He feels that this is the first year he has stepped up as a leader on the team: “This is the first year where I’ve seen myself as being a leader on the team. My freshman and sophomore years, I was just figuring things out. I was not as disciplined as I needed to be, but now I fully understand the training and process that it takes to go to nationals and get titles.”

Reneker explained the growth he has seen in Del Rio by saying, “Athletics is a fight. A lot of times, the calmest person in the room wins. Evan was a street fighter as a freshman, but as a junior, now he is a martial artist. He understands the control. The goal is to step on the line, to be able to take a deep breath and realize that all I have to do is do what I have been doing for the last 100 days.” He also said, “The junior I have in Evan is radically different than the freshman I had in Evan. He’s learned so much. You have to have the physicality, but also the mentality of being a national-level athlete, and I think he has grown into that.”

His junior season will be unlike any other season in some time. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the sports landscape. The NCAA cancelled all Division II Fall Sport National Championships. Which means that even though the Gulf South Conference pointed to cross country as one of just two sports allowed to compete in the fall, along with golf, there will not be a national championship at the end of the season. Coach Reneker said, “It is nationals or bust this year, and even though we won’t get the chance to do that this year, we will know at the end of the day whether we are a top 20 or so team in the nation.” He pointed to the stiff competition within the GSC as a measuring block for the team at conference championships as to whether they were a national-caliber team. 

Del Rio believes that the uncertainty caused by the virus has actually made him a better and more disciplined runner: “You do not know when you’re going to be able to race. It just has to be a continuous grind. If you take too much time off or get too lazy, then things start to fall apart. If anything, it helped to motivate us in staying fit. Whenever it is time to race, we are going to be ready.”

In terms of goals for this season, Del Rio feels that the men’s cross country team can win the conference title, and he also wants to win the individual title. Coach Reneker believes, “When we get to conference, there are national-caliber athletes there. I think Evan can compete with them. At the micro level, I want Evan to grow every week, and to be able to understand that with anything there are small steps to get there.”

Del Rio will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the MC cross country program. Del Rio says, “It would be nice to look back and know that I was a cog in a pivotal point in the program. I think Coach Reneker is turning the program around. Being able to be a part of a team that pushes the program forward to where in the next five or six years the team will continuously have guys who qualify for nationals. Being at this stage in the program, it is really cool to be a part of that.” Coach Reneker believes that Del Rio being the team’s first national qualifier will help show the other runners what it takes to get to that level: “When there’s no treasure map in front of you, and someone is making it, that’s the hardest part. The trailblazer. Evan is showcasing, this is what you have to do to be successful. He did that without even knowing how to do it.”

Reneker added, “You are asking a very talented 18-year-old from Texas to come eight hours away to help you build something. In turn, I ask them as 21- and 22-year-olds to speak that same vision into the people that are then 18.” He finished by saying, “I needed him to be able to see the future without knowing what was there. To walk through that veil so that other people would have a clearer shot to be able to go through.”

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