Driven to succeed

For Alpena High senior RJ Centala, running has been always been a way for him to stay in shape so he can focus on other sports.

Now Centala will make running his main focus and he’ll be doing it at the collegiate level after he signed a letter of intent with Alpena Community College on Tuesday.

“It was kind of a thing just to keep me in shape for wrestling for a while and then during probably my eighth grade year is when I discovered I actually had a talent for it. It wasn’t really a thing I wanted to do, it sort of happenened by accident,” Centala said. “During cross country camp (in the summer), ACC comes with us and coach (Mark) Jacobs definitely suggested it and it seemed like a good idea.”

During his signing in the Alpena High media center, Centala had T-shirts from UCLA, Oregon, Michigan State and ACC laid out on a table. At the beginning of the signing, he threw the other three off to the side before slipping on the ACC shirt.

In his four years at Alpena, Centala has been a three-sport star and by the time he graduates he’ll have earned one of the highest totals of varsity letters in school history (12) after lettering in wrestling, cross country and track for four years.

“It’s definitely an honor. It’s never been done here at Alpena,” Centala said. “We’ve had a pretty good history of athletes here, professional athletes and none of them has had as many varsity letters as I’ll have. That’s a pretty great accomplishment.”

As one of the leaders on the Alpena cross country team last fall, Centala helped the Wildcats finish third in the Big North Conference and also finished 32nd at regionals.

He earned a spot in the top 12 at 140 pounds at the state wrestling finals this year and finished his career with more than 100 wins, but any chances at collegiate wrestling probably would’ve come as a walk-on.

Instead he’ll join a team that will enter its third year of competition since the program was revived in 2012. Last year the Lumberjacks finished seventh at regionals and took ninth in 2012.

“I’m absolutely thrilled. When I recruit, I look for high character kids No. 1 and I’m had extreme success with Alpena kids,” Jacobs said. “RJ is high character, a hard worker. I’m excited to coach him.”

Jacobs’ first two ACC teams have been laden with Alpena runners and next year should be no exception. Centala will join three returning runners, but several of his teammates could also sign with the Lumberjacks.

Centala is used to quite a bit of running as a middle distance and relay runner for the Wildcats, but the expectations will change at ACC. Besides running a longer race (8K instead of 5K), Centala is hoping to get more base miles under his belt this summer and alter his approach.

Centala said he’s coupled hard work with his natural talent to improve each year and Jacobs believes that will help him transition easier to the rigors of collegiate running.

The nice thing about these Alpena kids is they understand my culture, my standards that I have and they’re a little easier for me to coach. They represent Alpena and they understand what that means,” Jacobs said. “He understands the culture, what it takes. He’s a no-excuse young man and he’s always asking, ‘What can I do to get better?'”

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.