South Xtra: Upper St. Clair junior switches from football to cross country
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In Western Pennsylvania it was the type of decision that is looked at with curiosity.
Upper St. Clair junior Jim Smith switched the sport he would compete in at his high school -- from the Panthers high-profile, highly successful football team to the far less publicized sport of cross country.
It's a switch that may have surprised some people, but Smith believes it was the right decision for him.
The choice came as a result of Smith's taking to running during the 2012 track season. Smith won the Section 6-AAA competition in the 800-meter event.
"After my times got down to a decent level, I had so many coaches telling me, 'It's time to put all your eggs in one basket,'" Smith recalled.
The "basket" turned out to be competitive running. So, Smith made the decision to participate in cross country this fall and put his football career on the shelf.
Smith's track and field experience had led him to be friends with middle-distance runner Kevin Lynch. Lynch has since graduated from Upper St. Clair, but he'd introduced Smith to distance runner Mike Kearns. Kearns made a name for himself competing in the Olympic team trials for Great Britain. So Smith's family hired Kearns to be his personal trainer before his first season in cross country.
"[Completing Kearns' drills] was one of the hardest things I'd ever done," Smith said. "We would do, like, 12 400-meter runs where my only break would be jogging -- he considered rest to be jogging around."
Smith was listed as a tight end on last year's Panthers football roster. He said coach Jim Render was surprised at Smith's decision to leave football for cross country.
"[Render] basically told me, 'I understand your decision, but the door is always open,'" Smith said.
Smith felt that Render may have been disappointed because football had been Smith's original fall sport of choice.
"I'd always imagined I was going to be a football player all four years of high school," he explained.
Smith's former football teammates were also supportive of his decision to leave them.
"My teammates were really understanding about it," he said. "I'm good friends with all the other guys on the team -- we stayed friends."
Smith's summer training and the elimination of his football commitment has led to cross country success. Through Section 6-AAA meets and invitationals, he has literally been a front-runner for the Panthers.
At last Thursday's Mingo Classic at Mingo Creek Park in Washington County, Smith was Upper St. Clair's No. 1 runner. He placed eighth overall with a time of 16:58. The Panthers' team placed fifth of 22 teams.
When asked how he felt about being a leader in only his first year of cross country, Smith replied, "It's kind of cool being the No. 1 guy."
He explained that this was because he really enjoyed opportunities to help teammates.
"I love this sport and I want to do everything I can for my team," he said.
"It's so easy to go 90 percent," Smith said, recalling some of the favorite things he'd learned from cross country. "You still look good and you still get some results, but you have to push yourself to go 100 percent."
Smith used last year's WPIAL track championships as his motivation. He ran in the 800-meter event and was in fourth place until coming down the homestretch. But his speed did not hold.
He placed 11th.
Smith has not made college plans yet, but he did spend some time this past summer with the track and field coaches at Kent State and at Bucknell.
"It was really exciting," Smith said.
The training, learning and college trips, has reassured Smith of his decision to give up football for cross country.
"I enjoyed football training somewhat," Smith said. "I just think that running is something I enjoy a lot more."
First Published October 18, 2012 12:00 am