Keeton Sanchez is one of those kids who doesn’t let much keep him down for long.
After a senior year at Youngker High School full of unfortunate setbacks, like fracturing his leg and the death of his grandmother, the distance runner recently committed to Western Oregon University.
“I’m stoked,” Sanchez said.
“I had a lot of good options for college. I would’ve been happy wherever I went, but I’m super excited. I’m glad I can represent a team that looked like they wanted me to run with their program, and just the community of the team itself just felt welcoming.”
Sanchez made a name for himself during his time as a Roughrider, setting a new school record time for the mile at 4:24.96, and finishing top three in Youngker history in the cross-country, 800-meter and 2-mile runs.
All that success led to discussions with coaches at several universities, including ASU, but Sanchez said WOU felt right.
“Western Oregon just felt homey and felt like somewhere I could grow as a person and as a runner,” Sanchez said.
In August, about a week before the start of his senior season, Sanchez was running in one of the fields around Youngker when he stepped in a gopher hole.
“We were doing what’s called a temple run, so it’s pretty fast but not full-on race pace,” Sanchez said. “I was going fast, and right when I went to check my watch, I stepped in (the hole), and the whole thing caved in. It turned my ankle in.”
Initially, he didn’t think much of it and ran in his team’s next race.
“I ended up racing after that, because I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just a twisted ankle. It’ll be alright,’” Sanchez said. “But I think the race was what fully broke it.”
He ended up in a boot for the next few months, forced to watch from the sidelines.
“It was difficult for me mentally. I struggled a lot my senior year, just watching everybody,” Sanchez said.
He stayed active as best he could during his downtime.
“I did a lot of swimming. I did a lot of biking. I really lifted a lot during that time,” Sanchez said. “Just to stay locked in mentally. Obviously I wasn’t able to run, but just to stay active so my mind didn’t lose motivation.”
That hard work paid off, as he finished 21st out of 149 participants in the Division II cross-country state championship in November. His boot was only removed three months prior.
“Mentally, I was still struggling. (I worried) I was going to go out irrelevant in my senior year for my cross-country season,” Sanchez said.
“But once you get on that line, and the competitive juices start flowing again, I was like, ‘Dang, I’m out of the boot. I have to go now. This is what I’m built for. This is showtime.’”
After such an incredible comeback, Sanchez was dealt an even tougher blow in March. His grandmother, Barbara Jo Mitchell, died less than a week shy of her 57th birthday at her Kansas home. She fought cancer for seven years.
Sanchez lived in Kansas until moving to Arizona in second grade. He said she supported him — before and after the move.
“When I was in Kansas, whenever I had a game, whether it was T-ball or just soccer at the rec center … she would always make the drive. She would always be there to cheer me on,” Sanchez said.
“She was a very competitive lady, so she instilled that competitive nature into me. She believed in me. (Even after we moved) she would always text me good luck before my big games.”
The senior year of high school can be tough for a lot of people as they prepare for their next steps in life. But even with all that was thrown his way, not to mention the pandemic, Sanchez said he will miss his time at Youngker — especially his running teammates.
“I love these dudes,” Sanchez said. “I know it’s cliché or whatever, but these guys are obviously more than teammates. These guys are brothers,” Sanchez said.
“It’s just been amazing to see the younger guys grow up with me, and the people in my class have grown up with me. It’s just been fun to watch them get so good.”
There is a lot for him to look back on, but he has his sights set on the future. WOU awaits him in the fall, and he said he couldn’t be more excited.
“I think Western Oregon has a lot of pretty places to run,” Sanchez said.
“In Arizona, it’s kind of difficult sometimes to get out of bed, like, ‘Hey, let’s go run in the morning,’ because you just run with dirt.”
He said he was impressed by his future team’s assistance with cleaning up after a storm during which tree branches fell.
“There, I’ll be able to push myself with those guys and work hard with those guys, and seeing them succeed is going to help me succeed, so that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Sanchez said.