By MIKE BLACKERBY
Living up to insane expectations is often difficult.
Not so for Catholic freshman Keegan Smith, the 5Star prep boys cross country Runner of the Year.
He began and finished the fall racing season as the No. 1-ranked freshman in the state and country.
No pressure there, huh?
Smith embraced every challenge.
No moment on the big stage was overwhelming for the 5-foot-9 prodigy.
Consider what the fleet-of-foot freshman accomplished:
His time of 14 minutes, 53.79 seconds in the Southern Showcase in Huntsville, Ala., was the fastest 5k ever by a freshman in the nation according to the 30-year MileSplit database.
Smith cruised to the Division 2-AA state title. He completed the 5K run in 15 minutes, 29.09 seconds – well ahead of runner-up Luke Thompson (15:53.37) of Brentwood Academy.
On Nov. 27, Smith finished seventh (15:06) in a field of 248 elite runners in the Eastbay South Region Championship in Charlotte N.C. to qualify for nationals.
At the Eastbay Cross Country Championships on Dec. 11, Smith finished in 16:02.8 to place 35th in the field of 40 of the top runners in the nation.
He was only the fifth freshman to qualify for the national race in 42 years. The last ninth grader to qualify for the race was Graydon Morris of Aledo (Texas) High School in 2016.
“Keegan showed up in every race and stayed focused,” said Catholic coach Sean O’Neil.
“He’s very consistent and I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
Other than perhaps a little faster time at nationals, Smith had no complaints about his senior season.
In fact, early on he was even taken aback by his progress.
“I’d give myself an A-plus,” said Smith.
“I wish I could have done a little better at nationals, but I was already very pleased with myself coming into the race.”
Smith said he was worried that he might have set the bar too high early at the Southern Showcase.
“The 14:53 was the fastest time ever recorded by a freshman and I was definitely worried about it early in the season. I thought ‘how am I going to do better than that?’”
As great as Smith was as a freshman, O’Neil said there’s still a lot of upside to be had.
“We didn’t do anything crazy to try and get him to nationals,” O’Neil explained.
“We’re going to keep building on this year. We’ll keep building his fitness and maybe build his mileage up a little bit. We just chalked up this year to a good learning experience.”
Despite an already dazzling resume, Smith said he has even bigger plans for 2022.
“I’ll take a short break, but what’s going to fuel me is going out and breaking more records,” said Smith.
“I’m definitely looking to repeat as state champion and have a better placement at nationals. I want to improve on my (best) time and probably run around 14:20.”
Smith said the motivation comes from within.
“I just really compete with myself,” he said.
“I always want to do better. This year is all about experience.”
O’Neil said Smith will have a target on his back next season.
“There will be more pressure next year,” said O’Neil.
“After making it big as a freshman, he’ll be a guy who is on everybody’s radar next year.”