The Tracy Walters Invitational has historically featured the top cross country teams and runners in the state.
This year is no different as the defending Washington boys State 4A and 3A champions were extended an invite to Audubon Park to compete in the first race of the season. Race time is at 10:15 a.m. Saturday for the 3-mile race.
Lewis and Clark and defending 3A champion Kamiakin will draw the most fanfare because of their recent success, but hosts North Central will make things interesting.
LC was crowned 4A champion last season after narrowly beating out Central Valley 86-87 at state.
Kamiakin ran all over the opposing teams, beating second-place Interlake by 37 points. NC came in third, 42 points behind the Braves.
The invitational is different in that teams are composed of 10 runners instead of the traditional seven. Eight runners contribute to team scores instead of five.
On the heels of a new season, LC will get to test itself against other premier teams from across the state.
“Definitely an exciting way to start off our season,” LC coach Michael Lee said. “We are going to see some really good teams. Us being a 4A team and North Central and Kamiakin both being 3A, we don’t see them at the state meet, but we run into each other at invitationals.”
One of the top individuals is LC junior Wil Smith. Smith is ranked 82nd nationally in the DyeStat preseason rankings and eighth in Washington.
“Well, that is cool,” Lee said. “I had not heard that stat. That is pretty exciting.”
Smith knew exactly where he was tabbed.
“I was pretty excited to be nationally ranked. I thought that was a big deal,” Smith said. “My second thought was I kind of looked at the other guys in the state who were ranked there, and I thought about how I could try and (pass them). … I want to compete with the top guys in the state this year and I had a really strong season last year and that gives me a lot of confidence coming into this year.”
Smith placed sixth at state last year. But Smith doesn’t just excel at running, he is also an instrumental veteran.
“He is one of our captains and one of the guys who is in the No. 1 spot. He is just naturally a leader,” Lee said. “Wil brings a softer side to that, I think. He is somebody who is very approachable and someone that younger guys feel comfortable approaching. Sometimes that No. 1 runner can be a little daunting to talk to because they are the big dog.”
It is a role that Smith has taken in stride even though he is just now becoming an upperclassman.
“I can try to bring up those guys who are lower varsity and upper JV to be competitive and try to make it to the next level,” Smith said. “I think I can also be the guy who sets an example what working hard and being dedicated can do to a running career.”
Running hooked Smith early in his life. Late in his elementary school years, he joined Spokane Mercury, a local distance running club team. He has always had the talent to be one of the top runners, but it was a matter of combining the right coaching and training with his natural talent. Now, he is finding himself on the podium after each race.
“He could be a good runner without doing any of that, but to be a great runner, you have to do it all and he is not leaving anything on the table,” Lee said.
Smith spent the offseason grooming his body for the rigors of the fall season. It was an important step for the junior to take to reach higher than the pinnacle he had already achieved.
“He was really lanky and (had that) awkward freshman and sophomore body,” Lee said. “He has worked really hard in the offseason to improve his strength and flexibility to make sure he is able to keep himself healthy.”
Making a preseason list as one of the top runners in the nation solidifies his standing among the running community.
“Your No. 1 runner always works hard and there always is some natural talent there,” Lee said. “Wil is exceptional in how he approaches it and his excitement and his love for running is evident. He is bouncing off the walls and ready to go.”
As for repeating, the Tigers lost their Nos. 2 and 3 runners to graduation, but Smith is confident in the returning group.
“A lot of the guys are really trying to step up to the next level in their individual performance to help the team,” Smith said. “They know what it feels like to win state and they want to get there again … I think we want to be back on top of the podium at state.”
Also taking place at 12:30 p.m. Saturday is the Highlander Invite hosted by Shadle Park, featuring 41 team from Washington, Idaho and Montana. The Central Valley boys will look to get off to a hot start after their second-place finish at state a season ago.
The Bears are led by Ryan Kline, the reigning State 4A champ who is ranked at No. 20 (No. 1 in Washington) in the same DyeStat rankings. The other three 4A Greater Spokane League schools will also compete.
On the girls side, LC and NC, 2017 state champions in 4A and 3A, respectively, kick off at the Highlander Invite at noon.