King’s Naomi Smith races to a first-place finish at the 1A district cross country championship this past Saturday at South Whidbey High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

King’s Naomi Smith races to a first-place finish at the 1A district cross country championship this past Saturday at South Whidbey High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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King’s runner has been among best in country this season

Naomi Smith heads into the state cross country meet with the 47th-fastest time in the nation.

During junior-varsity volleyball practices as a freshman, part of Naomi Smith was eagerly looking forward to her usual post-practice activity.

No, not a snack or a television break. Quite the opposite.

“I’d go home and run,” Smith said. “… That was always what I was kind of looking forward to.”

Smith has long held an affinity for running. She began running with her mother when she was younger, and later joined her middle school track team in seventh grade.

But because of the seasonal conflict with volleyball, Smith never ran cross country prior to high school. That began to change after the conclusion of her freshman volleyball season at King’s High School, when she decided to partake in one of the Knights’ cross country practices.

“She came out one day and I said, ‘We’re doing a time trial. Join in,’” King’s coach Rod Wilcox recalls. “And she broke the school record.”

Smith turned out for cross country the ensuing season and — in just over two years — has progressed into a nationally ranked high school runner.

Smith claimed the Class 1A girls cross country state title last season and heads into Saturday’s state championships in Pasco as the clear favorite again.

The King’s senior owns the second-fastest high school girls time in the entire state this year — regardless of classification — at a personal-best 17 minutes, 21.7 seconds. That also ranks 47th-fastest in the nation this season among high school girls.

“I think just the sense of accomplishment you get from it,” Smith said of her passion for distance running. “It’s very hard-work-based. … I like the very linear part of that, because you get out of it what you put in. If you work harder, you’re going to run faster.”

After placing fourth in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters at the 1A state track and field championships as a freshman, Smith had a strong start to her cross country career as a sophomore the ensuing fall. She took seventh place in the 1A state meet, running a season-best time of 18:42.2.

“She’d been a disciplined runner for a long time,” Wilcox said. “…. It looked like it came easy, but it was from all the years of work she had done.”

Then after two more state podium finishes in track the following spring, Smith made a massive jump in cross country last fall as a junior. She ran a season-best 17:27.9 at last year’s Hole in the Wall Invitational in Arlington, marking a nearly 75-second improvement from her top time the previous season.

“Elite girls don’t (usually) do that,” Wilcox said last year. “When so many are just trying to stay even, she’s improving dramatically.”

Smith capped last year’s cross country season with a state title, posting a winning time of 18:16.7 in the first year since the course at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco was altered to a more hilly and difficult layout. She finished 10.6 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor and helped King’s to a second-place team trophy.

“That was really special,” Smith said. “It was kind of my first big win. And also that was just a very exciting meet in general, because our girls placed second as a team. It was kind of just this nice feeling of all the hard work that we’ve put in, it paid off.”

Smith claimed two more 1A state titles in track this past spring, winning both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters. Her season-best 3,200-meter time was 10:25.50, which ranked fourth in the state regardless of classification.

Smith then ran another personal best in cross country this fall, posting her nationally ranked time during last month’s Twilight Invitational in Marysville. She finished nearly 30 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor in the 214-runner field.

“She challenged herself to try to even-split that course off of a fast start,” Wilcox said. “She went out in 5:16 (on the first lap). That’s crazy fast. But then she really didn’t slow down that much. … To do that solo is amazing.”

Because of Smith’s elite talent and the fact she competes primarily against 1A runners, she spends most of her races well out in front of the pack. As Wilcox explained, that definitely can be a challenge.

“When you’re two miles into a hard three-mile race and you’re alone, it’s really easy to rationalize (that you’re doing) good enough,” he said. “But if you have someone with you, then you keep pushing along.”

Smith said there are pros and cons to racing by yourself.

“I almost prefer it in some cases, because I think when you’re with a big pack, you can kind of get (dragged) out or go out really slow or go out really fast,” she said. “And I feel like when you’re alone, you kind of have a little bit more control over what you want to do.

“But at the same time, you kind of get (near) the end and you get a little bit complacent. … You really have to tell yourself, ‘Don’t do that. Keep pushing through the end.’”

The biggest challenger to a repeat state title for Smith appears to be Colville senior Alaina Stone, last year’s 1A state runner-up. Stone owns a season-best time of 17:33.0 that ranks fourth in the state, regardless of classification. Smith and Stone are the only two 1A girls who have beaten the 18-minute mark this year.

“I think (the key is) just going into it with the mindset of controlling what I can control,” Smith said.

Smith said she plans to continue her distance-running career in college.

“Wherever she ends up next year, she is going to transition just fine into the college course, the college (distance) and that kind of competition,” Wilcox said. “In fact, she’s ready for it right now.”

But before she focuses on making a college decision, Smith is zeroed in on a strong finish to her prep cross country career.

Meanwhile, as Smith finished her cool-down routine at the end of a practice earlier this week, Wilcox took a moment to reflect on what the star runner has meant to the King’s program.

“A great role model and teammate that obviously you can’t replace,” he said. “Hopefully we can use her as the ‘what would Naomi do?’ example in the future. … She will be missed.”

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