Profile: Owen Johnson heads to the starting line hoping to lead his team to a state title

On Friday morning at an enormous race track in southern Michigan, the Pioneer boys’ cross country team will stroll on over to the starting line for the 2020 MHSAA Division 1 state finals.

Owen Johnson knows the way – he’s been here before.

Last year as a sophomore, he placed 36th overall with a time of 16:20.7 and was the second fastest Pioneer on that day – behind only Henry Monte Sano (17th place). The Pioneers finished eighth overall.

The year before as a freshman, Johnson finished in 85th place with a time of 17:02.6 and helped lead the Pioneers to a sixth-place finish in the state. Johnson was the only freshman runner among the seven runners of the top six teams.

He moved up from 85th to 36th in one year. Where does he see himself landing on Friday?

“My goal is to just run a good race at States and hopefully get at least top 10,” he says. “I also want to help my team try to win the team competition.”

And despite having only two seniors among the seven, Pioneer has a real shot at pulling off that lofty goal.

Let’s head over to that starting line and see what might be going through the mind of Johnson as he steps into the “starting blocks.” In other words, let’s pick his brain because cross country isn’t just about being in the best shape.

“I think the mental aspect of running is what makes the sport so hard,” Johnson says. “For me, I just try to focus on running against people. I focus on where I am in the race and how to beat the other runners I’m currently up against. I pay less attention to time or anything like that.

“When I’m approaching a race I like to think about the course and figure out how I’m going to run my race, when I’m gonna make my move and how. As soon as the gun goes off the main thing I’m focused on is just the other runner’s in the race.”

At Saturday’s Regional, Johnson didn’t have very many runners to focus on unless he turned around. He finished second overall among the 70 runners at the Lake Erie Regional hosted by Gibraltar Carlson with a time of 16:11.0. Dearborn’s Charlie Frank took first (16:06.8) and Pioneer teammate Henry MonteSano was third (16:20.9).

The Pioneers won the Regional, beating out rival Saline by four points.

Johnson has had some good running partners over the years. He was teammates with two-time state champion Nick Foster as a freshman and is close friends with Skyline’s Hobbs Kessler, one of the favorites to finish first this year.

Johnson and Kessler (above) used to run together when both ran for Ann Arbor Track Club and they’ve remained friends ever since.

“I’ve learned a lot from Hobbs especially this last spring when the track season was cancelled,” he says. “He and I trained together a decent amount. He introduced me to new types of workouts and training which varied from what I usually do with Coach Sleeman. It was good to run with him because we both have very similar running styles that made us push each other in workouts.

“I think we also both have the same mentality about racing, where we focus more on racing the other competition in the race rather than just for time.”

Johnson’s junior season has been impressive so far. He finished first in four of his team’s first five races – he was second to Kessler on Oct. 3 in a dual-meet. He was second at the SEC Red Championships (Kessler won) and third at the Pre-Regional at Bedford.

As a team, Pioneer has won every race this season with one more race to run.

“The whole team gets along very well,” Johnson says. “The team is pretty much made up of some of my closest friends. We often get competitive amongst ourselves, which I think is good because we all push each other to work harder. We all share the same goal of winning a state title.”

Johnson first started running when his family lived in Germany in 2009, running for a local track club called ASV Köln. “I think what really made me like the sport was just that I enjoyed racing,” he said. “I joined Ann Arbor Track Club in third grade when we returned.”

One of the highlights of his running career – so far – was when he placed second overall in the Freshman 2 mile at the 2019 New Balance Nationals.

“Unfortunately, I have had fairly bad races at states both of the years so far and haven’t really been able to place as high as I would have liked,” he says.

Owen, the son of Kristen and Brad Johnson, also runs track and has a 3.965 GPA. He says he would like to run in college but hasn’t started that process just yet.

Anyway, he has a race to run. A pretty important race. So let’s head over to the starting line.