SEATTLE – When Coach Greg Metcalf and his assistants wrapped up their 2013 men’s distance recruiting class, they knew it was one of the best assemblies of local talent in Husky history. Along with signing a large group of the top high school seniors from the area, Metcalf and the Huskies also got the huge addition of two standouts from the previous year, Izaic Yorks and Jacob Smith. Proving that you can, in fact, go home again, Yorks and Smith have fit right in with the 29th-ranked Huskies, infusing the young squad with some big meet experience.
At the Pac-12 Championships last weekend, nine of Washington’s ten entries were sophomores, redshirt freshmen, or true freshmen, with lead Dawg Aaron Nelson the only junior. It was the first Pac-12 race for seven Huskies, including Yorks and Smith, but it was not their first conference meet. Both ran for Portland last year at the West Coast Conference Championships, with Smith earning WCC Freshman of the Year honors. He also went on to run well at the 2012 NCAA Championships, making Smith the only current Husky with national cross experience, something UW wants to change over the next two weeks.
Smith, who hails from Wenatchee, and Lakewood native Yorks both made the move to Montlake in order to be closer to family, and both were looking for changes in their training plans. Smith was also excited to be part of a larger, more diverse track team than what is offered at Portland.
When the two came calling, Coach Metcalf was more than happy to welcome them back home.
“We knew they were very talented and knew they were great competitors out of high school,” says Metcalf. “So when they both decided they were going to transfer to us, we were excited to add them. We have a large group of freshmen so adding two sophomore transfers really made for a big group, but we trusted in the leadership of our veterans to make it a cohesive team. I looked at Jacob and Izaic as two more members of the outstanding freshman class we had.”
The 2011 Washington 4A cross country champion, Smith was expected to step right into the Husky top-seven, but he says repeated illnesses caused his season to get off to a slow start. But at Pac-12s, Smith had a breakout performance. He was 25th overall and second among Husky finishers at elevation in Colorado. That was his first time in the top-five for UW this fall, and a great sign for regionals and, hopefully, nationals.
“I’ve been sick like the whole season, so I finally was healthy and was able to put together a good race. It was great,” Smith says. “I feel like everyone on the team is doing great. As long as everyone’s healthy and ready to roll at Regionals, I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t (make NCAAs).”
“He’s been at the national meet, and run at the WCC conference meet, the regional meet, and the national meet, so that experience is valuable,” Metcalf says of Smith. “Now, for him, he ran well at Pac-12s and I think at Sacramento and at Terre Haute he’s poised to go run well.”
Whereas Smith, with his NCAA experience, was pegged to contribute for his new team right away, Yorks has been a tremendous surprise this fall, not because his talent was in question, but because he suffered an ankle injury over the summer that kept him from logging the usual base mileage.
Yorks figured, “maybe by the end of the year I’d be in the top seven, but I rolled my ankle pretty bad in the summer so I hadn’t trained at all, and so I had no expectations because of that.
“I’m just happy to run, it’s a blessing,” Yorks says.
“We talked to Izaic in the middle of summer and we think he has a broken ankle and we think all right he’s done, he’s going to redshirt for sure,” says Metcalf. “Then he shows up and he’s only been running a couple weeks, so we thought we’d just let him run a couple weeks more, then we let him do a workout, then he runs well unattached at Sundodger. He had his best couple weeks of training and he runs well at the Dellinger and we said okay he can definitely help us right now.”
Yorks, in his own estimation, is more of a mid-distance runner. His high school exploits are a testament to that. At Lakes High School as a senior in 2012, he led the nation at 1,600-meters with a state record time of 4:04.00 en route to the 3A state title. He also ran for Team USA at the 2012 World Junior Track Championships, finishing 19th overall in the 1,500-meters.
But following his 15th-place finish at the Dellinger Invite, Yorks told Metcalf that he was loving cross country again. That race, in early October, all but settled the fact that he would not be redshirting, and he suited up for the first time at the Wisconsin Invitational in Madison, placing 91st in the huge field and third among Huskies in his official debut. He was then fourth on the team at Pac-12s in 38th overall.
“He’s been a great surprise. He’s obviously a very talented young man, but what he’s doing based on what he did this summer is fantastic,” says Metcalf. “He’s also a great teammate, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”
The next challenge for Yorks, as it will be for the rest of the Dawgs, is stepping up to the 10k for West Regionals in Sacramento next weekend. It will be the first 10k for Yorks, who may not even run anything as long as a 5k when track season rolls around.
“Coming up to this race, it will be my first 10k, and I only have a couple guys to get help from with that, Jacob being one of them,” says Yorks. “It’s a new monster for a lot of people. It’s not something that’s natural, you have to work up to it, but everyone else is going through it so I don’t really care.”
If that sounds like a relaxed attitude, that could be part of the secret to the range Yorks has shown this fall. “I think the big thing that Izaic’s done is he’s been setting himself to go finish well,” says Metcalf. “He’s got great instincts. The 10k provides a different challenge but still at the end of the day it’s racing from the gun to the finish line, and he does that incredibly well.”
While cross country is not usually a head to head showdown between two schools, Smith and Yorks will be mixing it up with some former Pilots teammates in Sacramento next weekend. Portland is ranked third in the West while the Huskies rank fifth. Still, with nearly 200 bodies in the field at Regionals, the new Huskies will only be looking straight ahead, not side to side.
“I try to just look at it as this is what I’m doing right now, this is the team I am with, so anyone that is not wearing a purple ‘W’ is someone we need to beat,” says Smith, “so I try not to look at it personally or anything.”
Already the pair have helped break the Huskies into the national rankings for the first time since 2009, and now they want to help propel this young team to Terre Haute, which would again be the first NCAA trip since the ‘09 season.
“Many of our returners knew Izaic and Jacob from high school and welcomed them the moment they walked onto our campus,” says Metcalf. “Honestly it’s been a seamless transition. They rolled right in here, they room together and get along great, and they’ve already made our team better.”