Everyone Has a Story: From young father to accomplished runner and coach, Ricketts leads San Diego Mesa

The Ricketts family (l-r): Christian, Sandy and Sean.
The Ricketts family (l-r): Christian, Sandy and Sean.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Everyone has a story and it doesn't matter where you look to find them. They're out there, even in a pandemic. This is the first in an occasional series where the CCCAA digs out those stories. How do we do it? Well, quite frankly we're doing it in a fun way. After assigning all 110 CCCAA schools and each of our 24 sponsored sports random numbers, we're using an online tool to randomly pick a school and sport to focus on. From there, we're interviewing the head coach with little or no background and trying to "find" their story to tell. We hope you enjoy!

By Mike Robles
CCCAA Director of Communications.

SAN DIEGO - The life plans have been much harder than the countless race plans he put together as a competitive runner, but Sean Ricketts has found success with both.

Ricketts’ primary focus as a middle distance runner was the 800 meters, a two-lap race that requires the right mix of speed, endurance, and strategy, otherwise it’ll swallow you up and spit you out before you hit the bell lap 

But that never fazed Ricketts, currently Head Cross Country and Track and Field coach at San Diego Mesa, who achieved success in the event at Rancho Bernardo High School where he won back-to-back CIF-San Diego Section titles in 1999 and 2000 while also enjoying success during cross country season.

As Ricketts noted, however, not everything was smooth running.

“When my son was born, I had just turned 17.”

That’s right, while many of his friends were getting ready for their senior year by spending endless days on the beaches of sunny Southern California or by hanging out at the mall, Ricketts and his now wife Sandy were learning how to change diapers for their son Christian. 

Less determined people would’ve been derailed by becoming teenage parents, but Sean and Sandy were more than determined. Sean was motivated to succeed, not just as a parent and a student, but as a runner because he knew those life plans needed fuel and just like his race plans, he needed a successful mix of all three.

"We were both scared but we knew that we had to come up with a plan so that we could provide the best possible life for our son," he said. "To be honest, I didn’t know what higher education route I was going to take. Going into my senior year I knew that whatever decision I made was going to be what was best for my family."

Juggling school and work at a local supermarket was tough, particularly with the demands of running and, most importantly, being a dad to Christian, who lived with Sandy about 30minutes away. But he focused and stayed true to his plan.

Ricketts admitted he didn’t have his best showing in his final trip to the state track championships in 2000. He went into the meet with the state’s best time (1:52.6) but struggled to repeat the success he had at the section meet which he had won again. Still, he was where he needed to be, and he didn’t need to look far to see his next steps.

“I was an (NCAA) Division I candidate, but it wasn’t the best option for me. I wanted to stay close to my family so I decided on the community college route, “he said. "I was fortunate to have met Manny Bautista, my mentor, who at the time was Cross Country and Distance Coach at San Diego Mesa College. He recruited me and a group of talented runners to his program who he molded into champions.  

“I am thankful that I chose the community college route," Ricketts add. "My schedule was greatly impacted but I learned how to balance being a parent, a student, an athlete, and working nights to provide for my family. It was probably one of the most challenging times in my life but it was also one of the most positive because of all of the opportunities that I was given”.  

His freshman year on the track for San Diego Mesa saw him move up to the 1,500 and success was waiting for him there also. Ricketts won the state championship in the event (photo right), his third consecutive year winning a major competition.

Ricketts credits Bautista for many of the opportunities that running afforded him. Thanks to junior national qualifying marks, Bautista was able to get Ricketts and some of his teammates into a junior national clinic at the former Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, alongside a young sprinter named Justin Gatlin who just a few years later would win at gold medal in the 100 at the Athens Olympics.

“We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to stay at the Olympic Training Center and learn from the best coaches in the sport," he said. "For three days we experienced the life of an elite athlete.”

Bautista also took some Mesa runners, including Ricketts, to junior national cross country and track championships thanks to their qualifying marks, and Ricketts was able to open some eyes of four-year coaches there.

“I placed third in the 1,500 and beat some freshman from top programs like Oregon, so when it came to Cal Poly taking a look at us, it was a great marketing strategy for us to be recruited.”

After earning a degree in mixed studies from San Diego Mesa, Ricketts landed an opportunity to run and go to school on the Central Coast at Cal Poly. More importantly, it was another big step forward for his family.

“The big move (for us) was when I transferred up to Cal Poly,” he said. “We all moved together as a family.”

It proved to be a good move for Cal Poly as well. Running on his home course, Ricketts won the 2003 Big West Conference Cross Country Championship in 25:38.2 while leading a 1-2-3 Mustang showing across the finish line that propelled them to their first

conference title in three years. It also marked the second straight year he earned NCAA Div. I All-Region honors. Ricketts also led Cal Poly to their first NCAA Div. 1 Automatic berth to the 2003 NCAA XC Championships.

Ricketts also succeeded in the classroom, receiving his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology with a teaching concentration in 2005 before receiving a single-subject teaching credential the following year. Sandy also took advantage of the opportunity, graduating from Cal Poly, another testament to the determination and motivation the two shared to providing the best future for their young family.

While helping to raise his family, Ricketts furthered his academic career with a master’s in educational leadership and a California Preliminary Administration Credential from Cal Poly in 2011 and a second masters in 2017 from Northern Iowa, this one in physical education teaching and coaching. Sandy also earned a masters as well in counseling before embarking on a career in that field.

Ricketts spent 11 years coaching cross country and track at Arroyo Grande High School near Cal Poly, where he led the Eagles to nine league titles in cross country and helped mentor several outstanding individuals in track, including a CIF-Southern Section champion in Ricketts’ specialty 800 meters.

With that success in hand, he was able to return to his alma mater San Diego Mesa in 2017(photo left) and success has just kept on rolling. His 2019 men’s cross country squad reached the pinnacle with a CCCAA Championship at Woodward Park in Fresno, a year after placing third in the state. Ten All-America runners between his men’s and women’s teams, three Pacific Coast Athletic Conference Track and Field Championships and four conference Coach of the Year honors, in addition to State Coach of the Year accolades, has set San Diego Mesa up as a power.

But it’s not all about winning, said Ricketts.

“The biggest thing that we’ve done is focus on what is best for each person,” he said. “It wasn’t about the 2019 team winning the state championship, it was about them developing as a person, as a student and as a track and field and cross country athlete."

“Our focus is, yes, (winning state) is great, we want to be champions but it’s about you and why you’re here, and you’re here to develop and transfer and graduate from college and get to your career. And track and field and cross country is a pathway to get there.”

While the road has been long and certainly challenging, Ricketts is grateful Christian has been alongside him the whole way.

“He is a great kid and we are proud of him,” the beaming father said. "He was exposed to track and cross country from a young age and it is something he really enjoys.  If he was at one of my cross country or track meets, he’d watch me, but he’d be off on the side running his own race.”

Christian is currently a senior at Southern Utah University, running for both the cross country and track and field squads while double majoring in psychology and exercise Science.

Sounds like a chip off the old block – or in this case, the young block.