Track: Phil Rizzo, of St. Francis and Evergreen Park, running down a dream
By Tim Tierney For Sun-Times Media March 23, 2013 12:58AM
St. Francis runner Phil Rizzo. | Supplied photo
Updated: April 25, 2013 7:12AM
From his steady development as a distance runner to an upcoming stint in law school to a desire to reach the 2016 Olympic Trials, Phil Rizzo is a young man with a plan and a purpose.
The senior leader of the St. Francis track and cross country teams has a lot on his plate in his final months at the Joliet school, but he also has the focus to get to all of it.
“He doesn’t like people who don’t work hard,’’ Saints coach Jeffery Barker said.
Rizzo already has a national team championship on his resume, and he nearly added an individual title a few weeks ago when he took second in the 5,000-meter run at the NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
The Evergreen Park High School graduate, who led St. Francis’ cross country team to the national title in the fall, came within a few jersey threads of winning the 5,000 indoors — Spring Arbor’s Nathan Martin was first in 14 minutes, 22.14 seconds to Rizzo’s 14:22.52. Rizzo’s teammate, Dylan Reyes, was sixth.
Although the 5,000 meters will be on his schedule at the NAIA outdoor championships in May, Rizzo is pointing toward a longer race.
“I would like to win the 10K at NAIA nationals so I can leave having won a national title in track,’’ he said.
Then it will be on to law school at either DePaul, Indiana or John Marshall.
“Phil is probably one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, mentally and how competitive he is,’’ Barker said. “It doesn’t surprise me, his improvements.’’
Rizzo started running cross country in eighth grade and clocked in at 19:40 for 3 miles as a freshman at Evergreen Park, which he called “not very fast.”
He eventually earned all-South Suburban Red Meet as a senior and qualified as an individual for the state cross country race. But in track his best 2-mile time was 10:44 and he never broke five minutes in the mile.
“I knew I wasn’t quite good enough to run Division II out of high school and Division III doesn’t give scholarships,’’ Rizzo said. “I wanted to run somewhere that could help pay for my education.’’
That was St. Francis, where as a freshman he ran 15:35 in the 5,000 meters compared with a high school best of 16:30 for 3 miles.
“Considering where I had come from and what I was running in high school, that was a huge improvement,’’ Rizzo said.
An even bigger gain came near the end of his junior year, a 14:46 in a meet at North Central College that Rizzo called a “huge breakout.’’
That was followed shortly by All-American status when he was seventh in the 5,000 meters at the 2012 NAIA outdoor championships. The top eight in each event earn the national recognition.
“The big goal was to make it to the final and see what happens,’’ Rizzo said. “To make top eight was awesome. That was a huge confidence boost.’’
The discussion about what Rizzo can achieve has changed, according to Barker, who sees more in his top runner.
“I say, ‘Phil, you’re this good. You can win this,’ ’’ Barker said. “’We shouldn’t be talking about being an All-American anymore. You can win.’ That’s kind of been our motto.
“At the same time, when you look at his history, it’s such a huge improvement. But I feel like he’s the type of kid who’s never settled, so why settle now?’’
Rizzo’s long training schedule that includes 100-mile weeks has helped put him in position to pursue more milestones.
“I have to decide whether to focus on 10K road races or half-marathons or marathons,’’ he said. “I put in nine years. I don’t want to lose my fitness. Once you stop running for a couple of months it’s hard to get back to where you were.
“I really wish next year was an Olympic year so I could try to go for it. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be to run 100 miles a week in law school.’’
As for this season, other local runners Barker expects a lot from are Minooka graduates Dan Bahret and Tevin Hopkins and Jake Ferris, of Plainfield South.
“We kind of have a motto in our program that we’re a blue-collar, hard-working program,’’ Barker said. “It’s kind of our school and our makeup.’’
No one personifies that profile more than Rizzo.