It won't be long before Sonora track star Samantha Smith is running against some of the nation's toughest competition in Division I college athletics, but the reigning "Valley Oak League queen" still has a few more high school races left to conquer.
Smith will run Thursday at the Divisionals in both the 1600- and 3200-meter races, which will be her final time competing in the former as a high schooler. She's looking to qualify for the prestigious Masters Meet in the 3200 by finishing in the top seven.
In August, Smith journeys to Alabama where she will attend Troy University and compete this fall on the Division I school's track and field/cross country team.
"I've known her since she was in the sixth grade and she's always been a superb athlete, great person and fantastic student," said Wildcat cross country head coach Glenn Bass. "If you were going to adopt someone to be your daughter, you would want it to be her."
Earlier this month, Smith was named salutatorian of her graduating class with a cumulative 4.15 GPA. She accepted the Millennium Scholar's award from Troy University covering her tuition plus room and board, and she will also receive an additional $800 per semester athletic scholarship for other school-related expenses.
On top of her academic achievements, Smith is the four-time VOL champion in both the 1600 and 3200 events along with winning the league championship in cross country as a sophomore and senior.
Smith wasn't focusing on athletics when she first began looking at schools because she wanted to make education her first and only priority in college. But the thought of no longer competing and being part of a team made her have a change of heart.
"As I went through the process, I knew it just wouldn't be right for me if I wasn't able to continue running on a team," she said. "That helped narrow it down as I started getting acceptance letters because I'm still undecided on what I want to major in."
Smith chose Troy University after visiting the campus late last year and meeting with Jeff Jenkins, the distance/middle distance coach for the school's cross country and track and field teams.
"It was amazing the difference between the coaches I met with and the way they talked and interacted with potential student-athletes, but I absolutely loved this coach and knew he would help me improve," Smith said.
"We flew Sam down for an official visit to our campus, she got to meet the team, they got to meet her and it all went really well," Jenkins said. "We were very impressed by the way she handled herself."
Jenkins first became aware of Smith through a scouting website and thought she met the university's specific standards in both athletics and academics.
"Sam is very, very involved in her school and that goes a long way for me because athletic talent doesn't always equate to success at the collegiate level," Jenkins said. "Sometimes you need a little more."
Jenkins said Smith is projected to be given a starting role as a freshman when the cross country season begins next fall.
"We told her this isn't a program where you will sit for a year and she seemed to like that," he said. "I think she'll be in the top five, and being in the top five is like being a starter in football. They are the ones who score the points to win the championship."
Meanwhile, Smith said she's been given a summer training routine from Jenkins tailored specifically to prepare her for the beginning of the season.
"I'm a little bit nervous because it's all going to be different and much more competitive, but I think my excitement outweighs that," she said. "I'm very excited to have a team and I already have my housing assignment with a teammate. I'm just ecstatic, there's not many other ways to describe it."
Smith will make the move to Alabama in August, but first she's just excited about giving a brief speech to her class as salutatorian at her upcoming graduation. She will also look to close out her final track season in high school with a strong finish.
"It's important to me because it's going to be my last time racing on that track," Smith said with a nostalgia-tinged sigh of the Divisionals in Manteca. "But the main thing I'm focused on is qualifying, moving on and getting a personal record at Masters."