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Campbell’s Ari Smith realizes his love of distance running can take him places

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Somewhere between the chilly winter tundra of Wisconsin and the scorching heat of Ewa Beach, Ari Smith learned to love running.

The newcomer to Campbell stunned the local field on Saturday, placing fifth in the always-elite ‘Iolani Invitational cross country meet.

Smith covered the difficult course, replete with steep hills, better than any other Hawaii runner. He finished with a time of 16 minutes, 2 seconds.

“I feel good. I feel tired. I would’ve liked to have gone sub-16. It’s cool. I represented Hawaii and my team,” Smith said. “That’s what’s important.”

Longtime Sabers coach Mark Inay has seen numbers rise and fall over the years. At one point more than a decade ago, there were more than 100 runners in the Campbell cross country program. COVID-19 depleted interest across the state, but now the Sabers number 62 in boys and girls divisions.

That includes a large contingent of sophomores and freshmen and their incoming junior addition, Smith. He began to bond with his new teammates during 76 South Track Club workouts over the summer.

“Coming to a brand-new school, it’s a little bit different. Running with the track club and our practices, it was an easier transition for him,” Inay said. “He gravitated toward our kids. He could tell which kids are really into running. Literally being the fastest runner on our team really helps, but he doesn’t act like a prima donna. He’s like everybody else. If you didn’t know, you’d think he’d been there since he was a freshman.”

The field of boys title contenders may not be extremely crowded at the top, but it is certainly recognizable this season. Defending state champion Keane Palmer (‘Iolani), rising contender Yuta Cole (Kalani) and several others are in the picture. Palmer leads a pack of talented runners from ‘Iolani. He was the top Raiders finisher in the 2022 ‘Iolani Invitational, 17th overall, in 16:56, with teammates Devin Pang and Ethan Chock close behind.

On Saturday, the change in venue from Kualoa Ranch to Hawaii Country Club fueled faster times — but steeper struggles. The hilly course in Kunia was well suited for Smith, who arrived from the mainland during the summer and almost immediately started running the slopes at Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park, site of the upcoming state championships.

“All the courses in Indiana are grass fields, a few hilly courses, but not as hilly as here. Not at all,” he said. “ ‘Iolani (Invitational) is the hardest course I’ve been on.”

During the summer, Smith and his family went to CORP each Saturday, preparing for the site of the state championships. That’s where he met the 76 South Track Club.

“I was doing a workout and ran into them. That’s where I heard about Campbell,” he recalled.

At that point, though his family resided at West Loch, Smith had planned to attend Radford. His father, Casey, is in the US Navy and works at Pearl Harbor. Ari Smith, however, had a change of plans.

“I kind of decided right away,” he said.

The ‘Iolani Invitational, in its 25th edition, drew some of the top runners from the West Coast. Parker Herbert of Santa Margarita (Calif.) placed first (15:29), followed by three more mainland harriers.

“I wanted to get out hard because I didn’t want to get boxed in off that first curb with a lot of people,” Smith said. “I knew the kids from California and Nevada were thinking this is a pushover meet, so I wanted to give them a run for their money.”

After Smith, Cole followed at 16:14, sixth overall.

“The first thing Yuta said was, ‘Finally, I have someone to push me.’ We’re going to be pushing each other for sure. It’s going to be a good year. I don’t even know who’s going to win,” Smith said. “I knew Yuta would be up there. I expected Keane to be up there and he was in the first mile, 2 miles. ‘Iolani’s a strong team with their seven dudes out there.”

Inay has seen Cole’s progress through the past year.

“I think he’s one of the preseason favorites to win states. Yuta is another one of those special runners. He really blossomed under the coaches at Kalani,” Inay said.

The next local harrier to cross the finish line on Saturday was Payton Mukkada of Mililani (16:37.17, 16th overall), then Punahou’s Benjamin Brown (16:37.99, 18th).

‘Iolani’s top six runners were right behind Brown: Pang (16:40, 19th), Cole Kaneshiro (16:48.39, 23rd), Palmer (16:49.3, 24th), Spencer Lyau (16:52, 26th), Chock (16:54, 28th) and Nicolas Moses (16:58, 29th).

As a team, Campbell finished 14th in the boys standings. Sabers Riley Herradura (18:58), Samuel Mancha (19:00), Sebastian Sarpi (19:07) and Josiah Hall (19:18) placed 102nd to 112th. Smith has high hopes for his crew.

“I think Riley will place high and Sam right behind him. I feel like we kind of used the course yesterday just to go out and die, go out and go for it,” he said. “Everything will lighten up as the season goes on. I think Riley and Sam will be solid.”

Smith was born in Wisconsin — he is a lifelong Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers fan — before moving to Virginia when he was 5. His family moved back to Wisconsin when he was 9, then landed in Indiana when he was 12. His passion for running gradually turned into his dream at Franklin Community High School (Ind.).

“I started running around fifth grade, but it wasn’t important to me. I played football and basketball and stuff, but I really locked into cross (country) sophomore year. I had teammates like Ty Murphy who pushed me and really motivated me,” Smith said.

It was enough for him to drop other sports to focus on cross country and track. He did the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-yard runs last year.

“I met Ari in seventh grade during track season,” Luke Holcroft, a former teammate in Indiana, said in a text. “I remember he was a goofy-looking kid that was sort of fast. Ari is funny and knows how to take a joke, but is also very serious when it comes down to it. He will push you to your limits. We would train together and race, and it was always a fun time running with him. We never seemed to get bored talking to each other. He broke 17 minutes in the 5K and was ecstatic, and really spread a great vibe among the team, especially since he was our leader.”

Smith’s best time last year as a sophomore was 16:48 on a slew of flat courses in the Hoosier State. Cutting 46 seconds off his PR on Saturday in overcast, fairly humid conditions on a hilly course did not surprise Smith.

“It was tough, a 9 or 10 (on a scale of 1 to 10). The first mile pretty much all downhill, a few baby hills. You felt it a lot throughout the second mile. That’s where it was difficult. There was that last hill, 150 to 200 meters going into the last 800. That was definitely the most tough hill. It was mostly mental,” Smith said. “I had to stay locked in and pick people off.”

That 16:48 in 2022 wasn’t enough for Smith to qualify for states in Indiana. He was in one of the more competitive regionals and missed the quota while other regions had qualifiers with times over 17 minutes.

“In my regional, you would have to go 15:40s,” he noted.

A year later, in the islands, he has already become one of the top harriers in the state. Smith’s first meet here was actually at a timed trial on the Pearl City campus. He wanted a “positive split,” or a faster first mile than second, but didn’t get it. He just never seems fully satisfied, nor frustrated. Smith just stays calm and driven.

“Aside from watching him compete and seeing his progression, running has affected all aspects of his life,” said his father, Casey. “His motivation, determination and discipline have all changed. It has been amazing to watch the transition.”

Ari Smith has a 3.1 grade-point average and hopes to run in college, preferably for the Naval Academy. Or maybe back in Wisconsin or Indiana. His success has already impacted younger sister Lucy, 10, who ran a local community race recently.

“Ari has been a trustworthy, independent son who is always at the center of whatever circle he might be in,” Casey Smith added. “He’s truly a born leader. He has made us incredibly proud and is an amazing role model for his sister.”

Smith moved from the Midwest to a program that has won one OIA crown (2004) and no state titles. At the ‘Iolani Invitational, OIA schools Mililani, Radford, Kalani and Kalaheo finished ahead of Campbell, which begs the question: are the Sabers going to contend for the league title this season?

“I just want everyone to work hard, play their part for sure,” Smith said. “Every day is a drop in the bucket, every run. Eventually, that bucket will be full and you have to pour it out on the course at the state meet.”

Ari Smith

Junior • Campbell cross country, track

>> Top 3 movies/shows

1. “The Office” — “I’ve been watching that since I was a kid.”

2. “McFarland USA”

3. “Billy Madison”

>> Top 3 foods/drinks

1. Buffalo chicken wings, Surfrider Hotel

2. Sushi

3. Watermelon

>> Top 3 homemade foods

1. Steak and rice (by dad Casey)

2. Dad’s chicken wings

3. Biscuits and gravy (by mom Ashley)

>> Top 3 music artists

1. Kanye West — “Heartless”

2. J Cole — “No Role Modelz”

3. Future — “Jumpman”

>> Favorite athlete/team: Milwaukee Bucks, Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers. Nico Young. “I think (Bucks’) Giannis (Antetokounmpo) will stay. He wouldn’t be the type of player to leave a team. I don’t think he has a reason to leave.”

>> Funniest teammate: “Tie between Sam (Mancha) and Riley (Herradura). Sam is enthusiastic and says funny things. Riley, he just kind of makes uncalled-for jokes. Riley’s just Riley.”

>> Smartest teammate: Ridge Sasaki. “He has good grades. He’s the first person I thought of.”

>> Hidden talent: Doing flips. “I like jumping off the Waimea Bay rock. Usually I do flips in the water.”

>> Bucket list: “To run a sub-16 (minute) 5K. To run in college. To win states. I would like to visit Tokyo or New York. I would like to run the Honolulu Marathon after college.”

>> Time machine: “I would travel to the future and visit a city like Tokyo. Just walk around.”

>> Youth sports: Football, basketball, baseball, cross country, track and field.

>> If I could go back in time: “If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self to stay consistent and to work hard for what I want. I just wish I had started earlier. I was definitely not consistent in freshman year.”

>> Shout outs: “My parents; my (76 South) track club coaches, Mark and Andrea Bowman; Coach Mark (Inay); Coach Will (Ryba); my team; Coach (Jeff) Powers and my team back in Indiana.”

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