Jake Ritter is the epitome of a student-athlete.
The graduate cross country runner is a three-time Big West champion, a qualifier for the NCAA Cross Country National Championship and a two-time Scholar-Athlete of the Year, proof that he continuously beats out the pack.
Ritter graduated at the end of fall quarter with a master’s degree in civil engineering.
Ritter first started distance running in sixth grade with community 5Ks. Through middle and high school, Ritter continued to hone his craft, but he noted that the transition to collegiate running was challenging.
“My freshman year, I was trying to be one of the best guys on the team and it led to me burning out a little bit,” Ritter said.
Running in college is unique, as athletes are always competing on an individual level but their scores can help the team win. If the team wins, more individuals prosper.
“Mainly when you’re helping yourself, you’re helping the team,” Ritter said.
While Ritter’s freshman year looks small compared to the rest of his running resume, he used the lessons he learned to accelerate him to his first individual title in his sophomore season and, in part, help his team win too.
On Oct. 27, 2018, Jake Ritter claimed the 8K title with a time of 24:27.5 at Carbon Canyon Park in Brea, Calif. Ritter led the race throughout and won by 11.6 seconds.
His win was the highlight of a 37-point team win at the conference finals. Ritter advanced in the postseason to the NCAA Western Championships, where the race is 10K instead of the usual 8K. He competed with a time of 30:39.9, which was good for 52nd place.
Coming off his first win in cross country, Ritter came back his junior year hungry.
“I definitely wanted to win the Big West again, that was the goal from the get-go,” Ritter said. “More importantly, I was trying to make Nationals.”
On Nov. 2, 2019, Ritter won by 42 seconds to capture back-to-back Big West titles. He ran a 23:43.7 8K, good for the ninth-best in UC Riverside Ag/Ops course history and 43.8 seconds faster than his first win.
Following the conference tournament, at Regionals, he took 29th place in the 10K event around Washington State’s Colfax Golf Complex with a time of 30:18.7.
This was not a time that could qualify for Nationals, but it was an improvement nonetheless.
In his fourth year with the team, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season, leaving him unable to compete.
Despite this, Ritter had built himself a well-accoladed Cal Poly running career. As he was finishing his degree in civil engineering, he came back in Fall 2021 to make another run at a Big West title and spot at Nationals.
Two meets into his fifth year, Ritter suffered a stress fracture in his right hip, the first significant injury of his career, according to Cal Poly Athletics.
“The injury meant six straight weeks of no running — the longest break of Ritter’s career,” Dylan Green wrote. “Immediately, the thought of applying for a medical redshirt crossed Ritter’s mind.”
The NCAA accepted his request, but Ritter had to still be a student to compete. So, he applied for the graduate program in Civil and Environmental Engineering. He applied nowhere else.
“I was banking on coming to grad school at Cal Poly and it was probably one of the best decisions of my life,” Ritter said.
So, Ritter took the season off due to injury, and going into his final cross country season, he was eyeing Nationals and the goal he set for himself years ago.
Step one was to win the Big West Championship.
On Oct. 29, Ritter showed up again when I counted most. He became the first three-time Big West Champion with a time of 23:27.4 – a Big West record.
“There was a lot of doubt for sure…any of our team could have won,” Ritter said. “As soon as I made a move around 4K, I knew I’d probably have it. I gained 10 seconds in a matter of a few minutes.”
However, the job was not finished.
“I think this is the year where I’m gonna try to redeem myself a little bit and make it to Nationals – either as an individual or a team,” Ritter said on Nov. 8, before his Regional race.
Ritter had to show out at Regionals, and he did just that. He ran a 10K personal-best 28:43.3 at Chambers Creek Regional Park in Washington.
Initially, Ritter did not think he ran fast enough, but his 12th-place finish earned him an individual bid to the NCAA National Championship.
“I wanted to keep training the same way I had been, I had my best race at Regionals and I kind of just wanted to repeat that,” Ritter said about Nationals.
Ritter earned 90th place with a time of 30:09.8 at the NCAA National Championship in Stillwater, Okla.
“Once I crossed that finish line, it was kind of a relief. I had been training for this for so long,” Ritter said in reflection of his career.
Through all the success on the trails, Ritter was also completing a bachelor’s and a graduate degree in civil engineering.
“Academics are the reason I came to this school,” Ritter said. “It’s a lot easier to work hard when everyone around you is working hard [in the classroom] too.”
As bright as the medals and trophies shine, Ritter is also a two-time Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
“That is probably one of my biggest accomplishments…when you’re the only Scholar-Athlete of the Year in the entire school, I think that means something,” Ritter said.
After graduating in the fall, Ritter plans to continue both his running and civil engineering career.
“It might be a difficult balance, it’s pretty hard to work 40-hour weeks and be the best runner I can be,” Ritter said. “Maybe work a little less and run a little more than the normal person would be.”
Regardless of the decision, Ritter is “really looking forward to what’s next after this chapter.”