In the spring of his sophomore year at Laguna Beach High, Ryan Smithers was getting his introductory look as a competitive runner.
He came out to run track after the prep soccer season, but his club soccer schedule with the Pateadores was still ongoing. That team was competing in the group stage of the Cal South State Cup Tournament when his season was cut short in both sports.
Smithers fractured his left collarbone in a collision with a defender while he was in possession of the ball. He was out of action for two months while he let the bone slowly heal without surgery.
At the time of the injury, Smithers had run three 1,600-meter races, only one of which had come at the varsity level. He had run a personal record of 4 minutes 48.96 seconds in the Laguna Beach Trophy Invitational in a frosh-soph heat.
Five days later, he had been called up to varsity. He ran 4:50.23 in an Orange Coast League dual meet against Godinez. Then the injury occurred. A small sample size did not dissuade Laguna Beach boys’ cross-country coach Scott Wittkop and the rest of the coaching staff from vigorously pursuing the promising runner.
“We pursued him pretty hard,” Wittkop said, joking that the coaching staff strong-armed him onto the team. “We were calling him out of class, saying, ‘We really want you.’
“[Assistant] coach [Tommy] Newton-Neal was calling him on all his trips, saying, ‘When you get back, we’ve got all the training for you.’ ”
Smithers noted that he was on a family vacation in Mexico when he had an hour-long conversation with Newton-Neal, who ran with the Breakers when they won a Division IV state title in 2009.
“In the summer, I was really kind of iffy on whether I should do cross-country or not, especially because of my schedule, and I knew that cross-country was a lot of work,” Smithers said. “The coaches were very supportive, and they really wanted me to go for it.
“The coaches gave me a schedule of what to run every day. I had this journal to put what I ate that day, how much water I drank. I liked it because it was serious.”
In joining a new sport, Smithers was left unsure about where to set his goals. At first, his goal was to be top five on the cross-country team and be among the runners that contributed to the team score.
The first meet of the season would change Smithers’ perception of what he might be able to accomplish. He ran a time of 15:54.4 at the Great Cow Run in Cerritos.
“I knew that breaking 16 minutes was a boundary that was hard for a lot of people to pass,” Smithers said. “Following that up with the Iolani Invitational and being the top runner on the team, from then on, it was just the grind.”
Smithers continued to improve and surprise himself as the season went on. Three weeks after the Iolani Invitational in Hawaii, he won the Orange Coast League cluster meet. Four weeks later, the junior breakout star of the Breakers took the individual title in leading Laguna Beach to the league crown. He won the race in 15:28.4 as the Breakers defeated Godinez 30-37.
We’ve been telling Ryan since the summer that we believe he is a top-10 state guy.”
This past week, Smithers helped the Breakers take second place in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 finals at the Riverside City Cross-Country Course. He ran 15:41.5 to place sixth in the race, leading the Breakers’ scoring quintet that also included Luc La Montagne, Zachary Falkowski, Cal Neilson and Mateo Bianchi.
“We’ve been telling Ryan since the summer that we believe he is a top-10 state guy,” Wittkop said, unsurprised by another outstanding performance by Smithers. “He definitely has the potential. He has the work ethic and everything now to prove it.”
The work ethic of Smithers shows up beyond his diet and training runs. He has studied courses that he will be experiencing for the first time.
The Riverside City Cross-Country Course is the home of the CIF Southern Section postseason races. Many teams, including Laguna Beach, have opted to run the Riverside Invitational as a means to train for the postseason races.
As the CIF preview meet approached, Smithers looked at videos of previous races and drone flyovers providing footage of the course for preparation.
Laguna Beach will run in the CIF State Division IV boys’ state championship race at 1:05 p.m. in the last race of the day at Woodward Park in Fresno on Saturday.
“I’m going to try my best, but my goal is going to be to get top 10,” Smithers said. “I know that is really tough to do, but I might as well just go for it.”
The opportunity to be with Sebastian Fisher and Falkowski, who he had befriended during the previous track season, also drew Smithers to the cross-country team. As the season has gone on, he has become close with all of his teammates.
Fisher was projected by the coaching staff to be the team’s top runner this year, but a hip injury caused him to miss most of the season. The junior has not run since the Clovis Invitational on Oct. 7.
Asked how he feels when he is looking for inspiration when he is running alone late in a race, Smithers flashed back to the section finals, when it was tough running into a headwind in the final loop.
“I was super tired, and I was afraid I was going too fast,” he said. “I think the one thing that kept me going was thinking about how hard our whole team has worked. I don’t want to let the team down, so I just kept pushing forward.”
Born: May 31, 2001
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 5 feet 7
Weight: 125 pounds
Coach: Scott Wittkop
Favorite food: Crème brûlée
Favorite movie: “Borat”
Favorite athletic moment: Helping his Laguna Beach boys’ team finish second in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 cross-country finals at the Riverside City Cross-Country Course last week.
Week in review: The junior ran a time of 15:41.5 to place sixth in the Division 4 championship race of the CIF Southern Section finals last week. Smithers’ top-10 showing helped the Breakers finish second as a team, behind only Los Angeles Cathedral.