Prep phenom leads Catholic in cross country

By Steve Williams

The Knoxville area has been a hotbed for high school cross country talent for years.

Freshman Keegan Smith of Knoxville Catholic High is the latest to join the list and is on pace to become the best ever.

Smith posted a 5K time of 14 minutes, 53.79 seconds in the Southern Showcase at Huntsville, Ala., on Sept. 18.

It is the fastest 5K time in Tennessee preps this season, “but more impressively is the fastest cross country 5K ever by a freshman in the United States according to the MileSplit database,” said Catholic Coach Sean O’Neil.

Smith finished second to senior Sam Rich of Catawba Ridge, S.C., who won in 14:38.71 – the best 5K time in the nation this season.

After Keegan, the next freshman to finish the race came in 35th place with a time of 15:47.38.

Smith has hardly been a surprise on the local cross country scene this season and his fame escalated with his performance in Huntsville.

“Keegan has been well known in the Knoxville running community for some time,” said O’Neil. “Last spring, I had coaches from all over East Tennessee asking me about him during track season. After his race last weekend, he has gotten a lot of coverage from the U.S. MileSplit site, so he is quickly gaining national recognition.”

Coach O’Neil has known Keegan for years.

“He came up through our feeder system, and the first time I saw him run was when he was in the second grade,” said Sean. “We have known for a long time that we had something special coming up the pipeline.”

Before his outstanding run in Alabama, Smith won the Cherokee Classic in Knoxville on Sept. 11 in 15:47, which ranks him No. 1 in the 5K in the state on Tennessee MileSplit.

“The Cherokee Classic was the first 5K Keegan had run for several years, so it was really a learning experience,” said O’Neil. “He ran well, but it was clear from what Keegan had done in practice that he was capable of running much faster.”

O’Neil said Smith had “a fantastic race” at the Southern Showcase the following weekend. “He got out with the leaders and raced with a lot more confidence than he did at Cherokee.”

How talented is Smith and what’s his potential in cross country?

“Keegan is clearly incredibly talented,” said O’Neil. “His endurance is great and his speed just keeps getting better. I designed Keegan’s training program for him to run his best races later in the season, so there is a lot to look forward to. We’re really just getting started.

“He mentioned in an interview after the Southern Showcase that he is hoping to compete at the Foot Locker National Championships. It is rare for freshman guys to qualify for that race, but it is definitely a realistic goal for Keegan.”

Since 2014, the Knoxville area has produced five runners who have qualified for the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego.

Aaron Templeton of Hardin Valley Academy competed in the prestigious event in 2014.

CAK’s Rebecca Story and Niahm Schumacher of The King’s Academy qualified in 2016.

Knoxville had three to advance to the Foot Locker Nationals in 2017. Story made her second trip and was joined by Carter Coughlin of Webb School and Jake Renfree of Catholic, who also returned to the event in 2018.

Templeton was chosen the SoCon Cross Country Runner of the Year at Furman in 2017.

Story, who placed third at the Foot Locker Nationals in 2016, is now a senior at Stanford.

Coughlin earned All-ACC honors in his second season at Wake Forest in 2020.

Renfree, who also ran for O’Neil at Catholic, was an All-American last season at Notre Dame, and with the free Covid year he remains a red-shirt freshman.

It’s only a matter of time before the recruiting starts for Smith.

“Coaches really can’t reach out to athletes until after their sophomore year, so there hasn’t been any recruiting yet,” noted O’Neil.

“Keegan has a ton of natural ability, he works extremely hard and he has a good understanding of what it takes to be successful,” added the Catholic coach when asked what were the “keys” to Smith’s success this early in his prep career.

“He has been training consistently with excellent coaching since elementary school, and he has been racing at a high level all along. All of this has made it possible for Keegan to make the transition to high school running a seamless one and allowed him to have an immediate impact.”

The annual KIL Championships will be Oct. 9 at Sequoyah Park and having Smith in the race will make that event even more interesting.

Hardin Valley senior Kaden Keller will be defending his title, but the Catholic freshman will be going into his first KIL race as the favorite, based on 5K times the two have posted this season.

The prep phenom, in fact, is expected to go unbeaten through this year’s TSSAA state meet and win the Division II championship.