South Xtra: Upper St. Clair runner separates from the pack

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Upper St. Clair's James Smith has one of the most common names in the United States, but among WPIAL track athletes, Smith has found a way to stand out.

Flip through just about any phone book and you'll likely see dozens of entries for James, Jim or Jimmy Smith. To find the outstanding 800-meter runner from Upper St. Clair, simply look at the top of the track results in any meet in which he competes.

Smith, a senior, might be the favorite to win the WPIAL Class AAA title in the 800. Heading into the week, Smith had the WPIAL's second best reported time this season -- 1:55.41. He's behind North Allegheny's Mike Becich (1:54.38). He's placed first in all of Upper St. Clair's dual meets and has captured gold medals at a pair of invitationals, the South Hills Classic and the Tri-State Track Coaches Association championships.

It takes many high school track athletes at least a month to round into top form and begin to hit peak times. Smith is an exception. He was putting up outstanding numbers right from the start. He ran that 1:55.41 -- a personal best -- at the South Hills Classic at Baldwin on March 29. A week later, he finished in 1:56.21 at the TSTCA meet at West Mifflin.

"I can't really be upset by being undefeated to start the season," said Smith, who will attend Lehigh University.

Smith's success has not been limited to just the 800. He earned top honors in the 1,600 at the South Hills Classic with a time of 4:28.52. That's the fifth-best reported time in the WPIAL. In addition, he's been the anchor for Upper St. Clair's 1,600 relay team that was third at the South Hills Classic and fifth at the TSTCA championships. The team's best time is 3:36.46.

But it's Smith's favorite event where he has been headline-worthy. How much does Smith love the 800? Well, his Twitter handle is @JimmySmith800.

"It's just a really good blend of strength and endurance," Smith said. "It brings everything about track and field together. It's such a cool event. It's such an awkward distance. You need someone with screws loose in their head to want to run it."

Four one-hundredths of a second. That's how close Smith came to winning a gold medal in the 800 at last season's WPIAL championships. Smith (1:55.92) was edged out by Penn Hills' Dylin Wilhoite (1:55.88). Smith's dream was dashed. Well, at least temporarily.

Smith said the near-miss has given him added motivation ever since. It fuels Smith and has him eager to return to Baldwin High School on May 15 to take care of some unfinished business.

"It's all I've thought about," Smith said. "We didn't know who had won. We just sat there and waited for the computer screen (to show the results). When I saw it, it was just really hard. It hurt pretty bad. But it was motivating to come back and try to get it this year. I'm pretty confident."

If Smith is to come out on top, he'll have to speed past some excellent competition, with Wilhoite being perhaps the toughest among them. Wilhoite not only won the WPIAL title last year, but he was also the only WPIAL runner to place in the event at the PIAA Class AAA championships. Smith topped Wilhoite, however, at the TSTCA championships earlier this month.

In the 1,600, Smith has a much steeper hill to climb. Fox Chapel's Colin Martin, Hampton's Nathan Sloan and Kiski Area's Brent Kennedy have established themselves as the runners to beat in that event. Sloan (4:19.37) owns the WPIAL's top reported time, more than nine seconds better than Smith.

Smith could also have an opportunity to medal in the 1,600 relay. His team includes Anthony Demaio, Alex Hardwick and Keith Leckenby. When it's all said and done, Smith hopes to stick out even more.

"There are a lot of great [800] runners in the WPIAL," Smith said, "but I really do think I have a good chance to win."

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