Gonzaga University's cross-country team is ready to fight for a WCC title and a trip back to the NCAA Championships this year with the help of their rising captain, Wil Smith.
The redshirt sophomore was recently awarded a spot on the men’s preseason All-WCC team with three of his fellow teammates: Yacine Guermali, James Mwaura and Cullen McEachern.
Smith is a Spokane-born runner who has been actively competing in the area since middle school. Ever since his sophomore year, he was the top runner for the Lewis and Clark High School cross-country team and he helped them win a state championship in 2017.
He also was an All-American for cross-country his senior year as he was the 4A state champion for Washington and placed 10th in Nike Cross Nationals.
When Smith was asked why he chose to run for the Zags, he credited how his relationship with Coach Pat Tyson was a major factor in the recruitment process.
“Tyson ended up being the coach for me and was the coach I met that believed in me more than any other college coach I talked to,” Smith said. “I really wanted to be a big cross-country runner and run the 5k and 10k for track and Tyson specialized in that.”
Lewis and Clark’s head coach for cross-country was also under Tyson’s coaching in the past, so Smith felt the transition from high school to college was easier as he had the tools and knowledge to fit with GU's program.
Furthermore, according to Smith, the competition of facing the highly ranked crosstown rival of Central Valley High School is what helped him prepare to run against college athletes as he consistently competed with one of the best teams in the nation.
The cross-country season was different his freshman year due to COVID-19 delaying the season to the spring semester. He felt that the extra months of workouts and learning from the older teammates helped prepare him for his first race.
Smith’s first cross-country race was in February of 2021 at the WCC Championships where he captured All-WCC second team honors by placing 11th. He then competed at the NCAA National Championships as a true freshman.
He redshirted the track season due to catching COVID-19 two weeks prior to the first meet.
Heading into his second season of cross-country, Smith felt that he had something to prove in terms of competing individually and as a team. The Zags started off the season with strong team performances and finished second place at the WCC Championships, fifth in the NCAA West Regional Championships and earned another trip to the NCAA Championships.
During this season, Smith had remarkable placements in meets such as a second place finish at the Clash of the Inland NW, fourth at the Cougar Classic and 11th in the Nuttycombe Invite which featured some of the best runners in the country. He earned All-WCC first team honors with a seventh-place finish at WCC Championships and all-region honors at the NCAA West Regional with a 14th place finish.
Following the cross-country season, Smith raced one indoor track meet and got injured, so him and Tyson agreed to discontinuing racing to nourish his health for outdoor track. However, shortly after starting to feel fit once again for the outdoor season, Smith rolled his ankle, derailing the outcome of his outdoor track season.
He ran in three meets, but never got back to his full potential. Smith was forced to finish his outdoor track season early due to the brutal toll it took on his body physically.
However, the injury didn't discourage him, but rather offered a glimpse of his potential for track.
“It obviously isn’t fun, but at the same time I feel like I walked away from last season realizing that I do have a lot of potential on the track because I surprised myself after running a solid PR without a lot of training,” Smith said. “I knew that if I am consistent and healthy all year and coming back into track season, I’ll be able to run really fast.”
Smith has a lot of excitement coming into this year’s cross-country season as he hopes to achieve numerous goals.
“I’d say the big individual goal is to become an All-American for cross-country, which is top 40 at nationals,” Smith said. “I’m also really focused on what I can do to lead the team to a great performance and assert ourselves as one of the better teams in the nation.”
For indoor track, Smith discussed how his own personal goal and the team goal align as they all want to achieve a good, early season 5k time and gain racing experience in preparation for outdoor track.
He also aspires to make the NCAA Championships for outdoor track and hopes that the experience of his teammates racing at regionals last year and training with the team will help carry him toward the fitness level required to achieve this goal.
Tyson explained his thoughts on Smith’s great potential as a runner.
“Wil is as competitive a runner that I’ve ever been around and I’ve been around a few in the coaching world,” Tyson said. “Here at the college level, Wil is arguably one of the top three or four Zags in Gonzaga history and he’s only a redshirt sophomore.”
Tyson shared how Smith’s work ethic contributes to why he has the abilities to be a great runner. He believes that Smith is still evolving at his age and his healthiness and mental toughness help maximize his abilities in competition, thus showing how Smith has the perfect skill set to compete.
Smith looks forward to being a captain and nurturing the underclassmen on the team. He also wants to motivative his teammates and make sure their well-being is being put first.
Tyson shared his perception on Smith’s growth as a team-first leader.
“I’m most proud of Wil for being a role model for his teammates,” Tyson said. “He’s a great team leader and he wants this team to be a podium team during his career and he wants to become a brand in running that every recruit in America wants to be a part of, so I’m proud of his leadership and unselfishness.”
In addition, Tyson discussed his aspirations for Smith and the team which included an All-American honor for both cross-country and track, being ranked top-20 as a team for cross-country, and how the coaches will do everything in their power to help Smith achieve his dreams.
Based off the aspirations and leadership qualities of Smith, the cross country team looks forward to having a memorable season at full strength with the return of a majority of their top-seven runners from last season.
As the team continues to practice together and prepare for the WCC Championships, the Zags have one goal in mind and that is to run the national meet a third year in a row, with the help of their captain, Wil Smith.