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1996 PREP PREVIEW / BOYS' CROSS-COUNTRY

Tustin's Smith Poised to Take His Next Big Career Step

September 07, 1996|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TUSTIN — Daniel Smith wasn't ready for his junior cross-country season. But that didn't stop him from trying.

"Daniel was out of shape and he needed to ease into it," Tustin boys' cross-country Coach Tom Coffey said. "But you know how you've seen those marathon runners who are staggering just to cross the finish line? That's what Daniel looked like after one of our early training runs last year.

"But he just wouldn't quit."

That perseverance has helped Smith, a senior, mature into one of the top runners in the county. After winning the Golden West League title last season, he is looking forward to bigger and better things.

The 1996 season comes after Smith endured an up-and-down junior year, but he has had some time to reflect and put everything into perspective.

Last summer, Smith and his family took a month-long trip to visit relatives in Panama, his birthplace, but the stifling heat and other conditions weren't conducive for running.

"It seemed like it was 106 or 107 everyday," Smith said. "The heat and humidity were unbearable."

Although the lack of training affected Smith's physical performance, he said the trip readjusted some of his thinking.

"Panama is very overpopulated," Smith said. "I got to see a lot of poverty firsthand. When I came back, I think I was a little more humble. I was happy to come home, but I knew I needed to start changing things. It reminded me how lucky I was."

Smith's competitors probably won't be happy to hear that the result is a more relaxed and coachable runner.

"I have to be more patient now," Smith said. "I have to always keep my head up and not get too high emotionally or too low.

"It's taken me a while to realize that I should listen to everything Coach Coffey has been saying. I'm starting to really buy into it now."

Considering Coffey is in his 24th year of coaching, that's probably not a bad idea.

"Daniel has a great desire and work ethic," Coffey said. "In fact, he's one of the few you have to hold back."

Coffey held Smith back when he first saw him as a freshman. Coffey spotted Smith in a normal physical education class, but it didn't take long for him to recognize the talent.

"As a freshman, I saw a very intense competitor who was running sub five minute miles," Coffey said. "That was good enough for varsity, but we kept him on the frosh-soph team.

"He had no background in running and very few ever start out that fast. I just keep reminding Daniel to remain patient and he will continue to succeed . . . at his own pace."

That pace wasn't fast enough for Smith's standards last season.

"Early in the season at the Laguna Hills Invitational, I remember I didn't run well and I got down on myself," Smith said. "I was moping around school and it really bothered me.

"But coach reminded me that I had to just start thinking positive and that I would run a good race. Still, I think I only had one or two good races all year."

One came in the Golden West League finals, when Smith completed the three-mile course at Huntington Beach's Central Park in 15 minutes 37 seconds. Smith edged teammate, C.J. Marciales (15:41) and Tustin beat Santa Ana, 37-42, to win the team title.

"The team winning made it more satisfying," Smith said. "I always put the team goals first. Like this season, I want to see us make it to the state meet. We made it to the section prelims my sophomore year and we made it to the finals last year. State is the next step, right?"

Even if the Tillers don't take the next step, Smith seems on track to move to the next level.

"He's definitely one of the better runners in the county," Coffey said. "How good? He could be No. 1 or he could be No. 10."

College has been something Smith's parents, Octavio and Irma, have been planning for some time.

Octavio Smith has been in the Marines for 23 years. Smith said his family has moved frequently, from Panama to Maryland to California. But the Smiths have lived in Tustin for the last six years.

"It's been really nice staying in one place for a while." Smith said. "It was always tough moving, getting used to a new school, making new friends. And the academic standards were always different wherever we went, so that was tough.

"And here, my coaches have really helped me along the way."

Said Coffey: "When your top runner runs and works at it like this, it tends to rise everyone on his team a bit. He's a neat kid."

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