By Steve Williams

Super talented freshman Keegan Smith of Knoxville Catholic High School is expected to have a lot of big-time races in his budding cross country career and the very first may well be the Eastbay National High School Championships this coming Saturday in San Diego.

Smith was the only freshman in the South Regional Top 10 to qualify for the prestigious prep event, which was formerly known as the Foot Locker Nationals.

Smith covered the 5,000-meter course at McAlpine Greenway Park in Charlotte in 15:06.78. Five seniors and one junior finished ahead of him and two sophomores and a junior behind him.

Ethan Ashley of Denmark High in Cumming, Ga., won the race in 15:00.31. Natalie Cook of Flower Mound, Tex., won the girls’ race in 16:38.05.

“Based on what I had seen Keegan do in practices and races throughout the season, I felt that he had a legitimate shot at finishing in the Top 10 at the regional,” said Catholic Coach Sean O’Neil, who was at the race. “The big question was how Keegan would handle the level of competition.”

The race was run in good course conditions; 41 degrees and sunny skies with a light breeze.

“Keegan is used to running in races that spread out early, but at Eastbay he was in a tight pack for the first half, and even after that it never spread out much,” said O’Neil. “The top 10 guys finished within a span of 10 seconds. Keegan managed to stay relaxed and run his own race, which is what you have to do in championship racing.

“The National Championships will only have 40 runners in it, but they are all good, so early on there will probably be an even tighter pack. There can be a lot of bumping and pushing in a race like that. Physically, Keegan is ready, so once again the challenge will be to stay relaxed and run his own race. If he does that he should do very well.”

Smith will be competing against runners from the Northeast, Midwest and West Regional meets at Balboa Park.

O’Neil, who will be making the trip to San Diego, said since the state meet, Keegan has been working with Tony Cosey, a steeplechase Olympian and retired long-distance runner, a few days a week.

“They worked together for years while Keegan was in elementary and middle school,” said O’Neil. “With such a long-standing relationship, Keegan wanted to get some input from Tony during the postseason.”