The trip from seventh-grade straggler to regional contender has been quite a ride for Wheeler's James Mills.
"It's crazy. Four years ago, I would have never seen myself being here," Mills said. "I just loved running. I dreamed about being really good one day and just kept practicing. I'm not really a natural runner. Everything that got me here, I worked for."
Though he was often finishing at the back of the pack in his early days, Mills gained an affinity for running, and the 800 meters in particular.
"I just loved running against people, beating them," Mills said. "I'm not really a sprinter and I'm not really a distance runner. (The 800) is like a long-distance sprint, not too short, not too long. You have to think."
In eighth grade, Mills' transformation from caterpillar to butterfly began. He set the middle school 800 record, then ran cross country in high school to build his strength and endurance.
"The potential was there. We knew he had speed," Wheeler coach Louie Guillen said. "We could tell he was a 400, 800 guy."
When he moved up to Wheeler, Mills learned at the heels of teammate Kyle Nurse, a state qualifier in the same event who now runs for Indiana State.
"He really drove me to do better," Mills said. "He was a guy I looked up to every race. I ran as fast as could to beat him. Now I'm carrying on the legacy. The fact that I'm an upperclassman, leading the team, drives me, too."
Mills finished sixth in last year's sectional, running 2:04.12. Racing without much competition most of this season, his times floated around 2:02 before a recent surge started with a win at the Greater South Shore Conference meet.
"He just works at it. He's a very humble, unassuming kid, a regular Joe on the block who's willing to help anybody who needs it,' Guillen said. "Kyle kind of mentored him. He learned a lot from Kyle, and now he's a mentor to (freshman) Joel (O'Shea) as well. They work well together."
Against all the big schools at the Portage Sectional, Mills almost stole the title, clocking a personal-best 1:58.87. Top-seeded Anthony Didion of LaPorte needed a huge kick to edge Mills at the line.
"I was telling myself all week, 'You're a junior now, you've got to step up,'" Mills said. "I was like, 'All right, I've got to get it done in the sectional.' I just went a little too early. If I had waited 30 more meters, I would've gotten him."
Though he didn't win, the finish was a major confidence boost for Mills.
"He needed it," Guillen said. "He's a great runner. He relies on his kick, but he's not afraid to take the lead from the gun. I just sensed a little doubt creeping in his mind. He went after it. It was exciting to see. He told me the other day he was so used to just watching at this level, he was excited to get to participate."
With seven runners seeded within two seconds in the 800, tonight's Valparaiso Regional race is wide open, and Mills expects to be right in the thick of it.
"If I run a little smarter, I'm pretty confident I'll be able to take it," he said. "I'm going to wait until the last 100, go all out, and see who's with me or who I'm chasing."