Only a few short years ago, Smithville senior Lucas Clark was lining up on the line of scrimmage for the Smithies’ football team.
Not exactly a big kid, he realized he may not be cut out for the game, so when fellow senior Justin McKeal invited him to join the cross country team in the eighth grade, Clark acquiesced.
Flash forward five years, and the two Smithies were lining up at National Trail Raceway as they led the Smithies team into the Div. II state meet. Less than 17 minutes after the starter’s pistol signaled the start of the championship race, they were celebrating a Smithville first.
With Clark’s seventh-place finish in 16:14.1 and McKeal 19th-place effort in 16:28.8, the duo became the first pair of Smithies to earn All-Ohio honors in the same season.
“Justin is the only reason I ever got into this sport, so I owe him a lot,” Clark said. “This has been amazing over the years, running with my family, and that is what these guys are to me, a family. To run today side-by-side with Justin means so much to me. He is someone I’ve known and run with since he introduced me to the sport back in eighth grade.”
Last year Clark ran a 16:26.7 to sneak into the top 25 at 23rd place. That effort introduced him to the All-Ohio status. This year he made sure nobody was going to knock him out of that group.
“This has meant so much to me,” Clark said of his cross country experience. And to end it down here like this is unbelievable.”
McKeal was not supremely thrilled with his effort, especially coming on the heels of a tremendous regional runner-up run. However, he also realized the magnitude of what he had done. Considering that this is the same young man who came to the state meet with the Smithies in his first year and ended up third-to-last, he wasn’t about to complain.
“I’ve come a long way,” McKeal said. “This journey has been pretty amazing. It is a bit unfortunate that I didn’t bring my A-game out today, but looking at the entire season and the way my career has played out, it has been amazing to see the way it has played out and how the hard work I have put in has paid off.”
McKeal said that self-motivation and the encouragement of his teammates has played an instrumental role in the incredible turn-around he has experienced in the sport. He said having teammates and coaches around who want to see the best for him has been an inspiration.
“I’ve been waiting all season for this moment,” McKeal said. “I wasn’t feeling the best, and that is unfortunate, but it is nothing that I can be too upset about because I’m up here on the podium as an All-Ohioan.”
While the Smithies placed 12th as a team with Noah Navratil coming in next for Smithville at 70th place, head coach Greg DeRodes said the performance he got from his two senior stars exemplifies their commitment and the effort of his team as a whole.
“The reason we are here is because of these two guys,” DeRodes said. “The whole team is lifted up because of their example. These guys have been two of the best leaders we have ever had, and their impact on this program is going to be seen over the next several years.”