Derick Peters won’t lie: What he has done this season was not expected.
It might have been first apparent to the West Central junior at the Augustana Twilight meet, held Sept. 2 at Yankton Trails Park. Grant Watley, the former head cross country coach at USF who trained Peters this summer, was out watching the race. He and Peters formed a plan beforehand: Stick with the lead pack for the first two miles of the three-mile race, and then make a move somewhere in the last mile.
Peters instead waited just half a mile into the race before jetting into the lead, lengthening it and eventually winning by more than 30 seconds.
The next week, back at Yankton Trails for the Nike Heartland Preview meet, Peters tried going out hard and seeing who could hang with him. By the time the course’s opening straightaway narrowed and Peters hit the first turn, he was alone, and he stayed that way for the rest of the race, eventually winning by more than a minute. He texted Watley afterwards to say that it was “pretty easy.”
In 2015, as a sophomore, Derick Peters was a very good cross country runner, one of the best in the state. He placed second in the Class A meet with a time of 16:09, the top finisher on West Central’s senior-stacked state championship team.
In 2016, Peters has improved his times from last year by more than a minute, has won races essentially without competition — his closest margin of victory has been seven seconds, in a race where he acted as a pacer for his younger brother Braden — and recently ran a sub-15 minute 5K at the Lennox Invite.
As a sophomore, he was one of the best in the state. As a junior, he’s one of the best in the country.
“I was not expecting this huge drop,” Peters said. “I’m definitely happy it happened, and it’s nice to see the hard work and the time getting paid off, but I don’t think I can say that I imagined running these times.”
He didn’t imagine being a cross country star, either. Peters started running when he was young, first as a way just burn off some of the bountiful energy he had as a kid. His grandfather was an avid runner, so he’d sometimes accompany him, and by the time he was 10, Peters was running 5Ks.
“That’s just the way he relaxes,” said his mother, state senator Deb Peters. “His brain shuts off, his body runs, and that’s his stress relief, that’s his coping, that’s everything that’s going on in his world.”
It was one of those races where former West Central coach Becky Wahl first met Peters, after seeing him out in front of her and talking with mother afterwards. When Peters was in seventh grade, he was already running varsity races for the Trojans.
Peters’ first passion has long been soccer, though. He plays center back for Dakota Alliance, and he’ll start the club soccer season at the end of October. He went to multiple college camps this past summer in addition to his training for cross country. One of the reasons he started running at West Central was because the Trojans don’t have a boys soccer team.
“I’m like, ‘You know what, why not?'” Peters said of his thinking at the time. “It’ll keep me in shape for soccer, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Peters was rarely the fastest player on the soccer field, not a quick, straight-line speedster like his favorite player, Eden Hazard of Chelsea. But in whatever conditioning activity his team would do, Peters found that he was able to stay in front through the last rep.
“He has an extraordinary work ethic, and he has a very, very high tolerance for pain,” Wahl said. “Which is the perfect cross runner right there.”
For much of his high school career, Peters’ offseason training regimen consisted of whatever he did with soccer. Starting with his sophomore year, though, he increased his focus on running. He’s optimized his diet to get enough carbs, protein and iron and cut down on sugar. He started to work with Watley over the summer and upped his mileage total to around 300 miles after sitting in the 200 range the previous two summers. He also grew a couple inches and gained some weight.
So when Peters came out this fall and started reeling off 5K times in the low 15-minute range, among the top runners in the country, it was surprising to his coaches and parents at first, but in retrospect, the ingredients for improvement were there. The main issue West Central has had with him this fall has been finding races to challenge and push him. The Trojans wanted Peters to run in the Roy Griak Invitational in Minneapolis, one of the largest and most prestigious meets in the country, but couldn’t get approval from administrators to go.
“I think that’s what he needs right now,” said Kendra Benedetto, Peters’ current coach at West Central. “Just that true competition of someone challenging him, in front of him, beside him, to really get him going.”
Peters doesn’t have much difficulty motivating himself or training alone — though he prefers to have someone with him — and his coaches say he has an excellent internal clock. The lack of competition, however, has prevented Peters from truly testing his finishing speed, which he singles out as his weakest quality as a runner. He’s targeted that area in his work with Watley, who said Peters has run an all-out 400 meters in 59 seconds at the end of a hard workout.
“It’ll be fun to see, if he ever actually gets in a finishing kick, what he can do,” Watley said.
It’s difficult to directly compare Peters with the state’s top runners in past years, as courses often change and teams can seldom overlap in their race schedules. The course at Yankton Trails, where Peters’ breakout performances this season have come, has seen some recent alterations that have made it faster.
He’s certainly on the same level as Lincoln alum Will Lauer, now at Stanford, and Brookings alum Addison DeHaven, now at Boise State. Lauer won the state meet by more than 40 seconds his senior year, and DeHaven won by 26 seconds as a senior. Peters has a chance to win by a similar margin as a junior, albeit in a smaller class. In this year’s Augustana Twilight Invitational, he beat Lincoln’s Gabe Peters, who ran the fastest overall time at the state meet in 2015, by just under 40 seconds.
Schools like Nebraska and Texas A&M have contacted Peters, but he isn’t putting intensive thought into college yet. He’s focused enough on his classes at West Central, where he carries a 4.0 GPA, and his role as the drum major for the school’s marching band, and he doesn’t know what he wants to major in. He also doesn’t want to give up soccer just yet, even with the astonishing success he’s having on the cross country course.
That success isn’t going to his head, though. Peters won the Dakota XII Conference meet at Yankton Trails on Thursday in 15:40, 38 seconds faster than his brother, a sophomore who finished second. Peters took his time getting into the lead, helping to push the lead pack of runners early on, and once he crossed the finish line, he cheered on runners from other schools as they finished.
“The thing I like most about this season so far is the humility with which he has handled his success,” Wahl said. “He’s not running for himself out there.”
For all his passion for helping the team and Braden, who is putting down times comparable to what his brother did last year and could be a growth spurt away from stardom, Peters is an intense competitor. That’s what kept him going on the runs during the summer, longer and lonelier than he’d ever known. He pictured the joy and satisfaction of winning, which has stuck with him since last year’s state meet.
“I’m just the type of person that always wants to be number one, and I enjoy knowing that it could happen,” Peters said. “And right now, i think it’s kind of cool. If I keep working, I could be…”
He pauses slightly, as if considering the true magnitude of his performance this season.
Follow Ian Frazer on Twitter at @IanMcFrazer .