EDMOND — Jaci Smith dreamed of being the state cross country champion someday. After Friday, the Edmond North sophomore realizes that dream could come true sooner than she thought.
Smith has emerged as a serious contender for this year's title after defeating defending 6A champ Emily Helms of Mustang by seven seconds in last week's OK Runner Classic in Norman.
“She is a lot faster this year,” Mustang coach Mike McGarry said of Smith. “She has run some terrific times. Emily has got some work to do to catch her.”
Smith, 15, was Edmond North's top cross country runner last year as a freshman, but by her own admission “fell apart” at the state championship meet and finished 41st.
Smith said her poor performance was a combination of being nervous and not feeling well. She became ill after the meet and had to be taken to the emergency room were she was treated for dehydration.
“I just didn't have my best race,” she said. “I don't think I was ready for that big of a stage. I was worn out from the season. I just wasn't very smart about my training last season. I will try to be smarter this year. ”
It's early in the cross country season, but Smith hasn't been beaten yet. She has won all three of Edmond North's cross country meets — one which was a 5K in Texas — and defeated Helms for the first time on Friday.
“I trained really hard this summer,” said Smith, whose father, Don, was a hurdler at Oklahoma Christian in the mid-80s. “I did a summer track program. I think I have gotten stronger mentally. I am able push myself harder than I used to.”
Edmond North coach Kent Douglas said the biggest difference in Smith this season is she has learned to follow a race strategy and not start to fast.
“This year, she understands what that means,” Douglas said. “Instead of going out and trying to blow everybody away, she understands staying with the field. Last year, she would try to leave people. She is still learning, but she has figured it out a little bit in her head now.”
That was evident Friday when Smith was content to stay with Helms for most of the race, then was able to overtake her in the final half-mile.
Smith has learned that being ahead in the beginning and the middle of the race is not what's important.
“Nobody likes to see people in front of them. That's kind of demoralizing,” Smith said. “Last year, I used to be the rabbit. I would take off really fast and I wouldn't have enough toward the end. This year, I am trying take off at my own pace and maintain it, run my own race. I definitely have much more of a kick than I did last year.”
Not only can Smith run, she also is an excellent tennis player. She won the state championship in No. 2 singles last spring but missed qualifying to the state track meet as a result.
Edmond North's regional track meet was on the same day at the state tennis tournament. Smith played two tennis matches in Oklahoma City and then rushed to go run the mile in the regional track meet at Edmond.
Smith missed running in other events at the regional because she was playing tennis.
“I probably played four or five hours of tennis that day,” she said.
Fatigued from tennis, Smith still finished fourth in the mile run and barely missed qualifying for the state track meet. The top four fourth-place regional times qualify. Smith's time was the next in line. She missed making the top four by a tenth of a second.
“I don't want to make any excuses, but I think if I had fresher legs it would have been different,” she said.
Douglas thinks Smith would have qualified to the state track meet in the 4x800 meter relay, the 2-mile run and the mile run if not for the scheduling conflict with the state tennis tournament.
Neither have looked ahead to see if there is going to be a similar problem next spring, but Smith wants to keep participating in both sports.
For now, however, she is concentrating only on cross country and likely will oppose Helms again during meets the next two weeks.
On Friday, Mustang and Edmond North are entered in the Dogpack at Edmond Santa Fe High School. On Sept. 20, Helms and Smith should face each other again at the Harrier meet in Mustang.
The distance of the girls' cross country races in both those meets will be 5K instead of the usual 2-mile run.
“I like the longer distances. I feel like I am better at the longer distances,” Smith said. “I definitely expect her (Helms) to be at her best.”