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Smith’s cross country dreams finally becoming reality

Oklahoma State cross country coach Dave Smith's program will host the NCAA championships on Monday in Stillwater. [Bruce Waterfield/OSU Athletics]
Oklahoma State cross country coach Dave Smith's program will host the NCAA championships on Monday in Stillwater. [Bruce Waterfield/OSU Athletics]

Dave Smith inherited a lofty goal from Oklahoma State’s former cross-country coach.

To achieve it, he needed patience and a renovated course.

Smith started his OSU career in 2002 as an assistant for veteran coach Dick Weis, who aspired to bring the NCAA Division I cross-country championship races to Stillwater. Weis retired from the head coaching position after the 2008 season, but Smith, his successor, continued to pursue the ambition they shared.

At the end of an unusual season that was extended because of COVID-19 protocol, Smith will finally see his dream of 19 years materialize. The NCAA DI Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships are set for Monday on OSU’s recently remodeled course.

“I’m just thrilled to have it here and to kind of show off what we’ve got to the rest of the NCAA cross-country world,” Smith said.

Since finalizing the upgrades in July 2019, OSU has held a few events, but hosting a championship gives its on-campus course a new level of prestige and attention. Thirty-one teams, including the No. 6 Cowboys and the No. 22 Cowgirls, are expected to participate in each race, and each competition field includes 38 additional individual qualifiers.

Smith is still in awe that his hopes are becoming a reality.

Initially, when Weis told Smith he wanted Stillwater to become a championship site, Smith figured it would be possible. The land was there, he said, and the course probably just needed a few improvements.

As years passed and OSU never hosted, Smith realized it would take much more than that.

“Expectations of what a championship course looks like has changed in the last 20 years,” Smith said. “So every time I thought we were getting to a point where maybe we could put in a bid, the goalpost would move. Courses got better and better.”

To keep up, OSU’s course had to undergo a makeover. Smith intrigued the NCAA with his vision of a revamped location, securing OSU’s first bid for a championship, which was eventually pushed from fall 2020 to spring 2021.

It was an exciting plan, but he had to make sure his athletic director was fully on board. Smith shared the news with Mike Holder and said the refurbishments were necessary.

“Luckily, he didn’t fire me,” Smith joked. “He stepped up to the plate and did amazing things.”

The multi-million-dollar project started in summer 2018, and about a year later, OSU’s cross-country teams had a modernized course full of distinct features.

Rolling, green terrain, which consists of Astro Bermuda grass and sod, meanders between clusters of trees. The running surface is now wider, creating plenty of space for all championship contenders, and the whole course is irrigated. The drainage ditches and culverts prevent water from pooling on the elevated ground, so heavy rain before the championship might not make it excessively messy, Smith said.

Despite those perks, contestants won’t have an easy path to an NCAA title. Smith compared the course’s range of altitudes to the difference between Mount Fuji and Death Valley. It’s an obvious exaggeration, but visitors such as BYU coach Ed Eyestone have noticed the gradients, the steepest of which runners encounter in the final 800 meters.

“In my 20-years plus of coaching NCAA, I think it’s the most challenging, hilly course that we’ve had,” Eyestone said.

Some athletes have discovered how to handle the terrain. Luis Grijalva, a Northern Arizona senior, won the OSU Invitational on the course in October.

“Whatever uphill you get, there’s gonna be a downhill,” Grijalva said. “So I think with that, the course kind of evens out itself.”

Of course, OSU’s runners know their home site’s unique challenges best. Both of Smith’s teams have contenders who could finish high in the standings — Molly Born and Isai Rodriguez are entering the championships with momentum from first-place showings at the OSU Winter Open on Feb. 23. Born and her Cowgirl teammates are set to compete in the women’s race at 11:50 a.m., and Rodriguez and the Cowboys will follow in the men’s race at 12:40 p.m.