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.