The Grind, Presented by Bank of Clarendon: Wilson Hall's Smith repeatedly makes Baron history


Wilson Hall senior Connor Smith stepped onto a muddy field in Columbia on Saturday hoping to set a new personal best.

He had his eyes on the 16-minute mark.

Connor sloshed through a field that had already been rained on all week and then torn up by the girls varsity race to cross the finish line in 15:59.21. He reached his goal and another milestone he'd nearly forgotten about.

"Funny enough, I wanted to go sub-16 in that meet, but it didn't really click with me that the school record was 16:01. Finished the race and I realized, 'The school record is 16-something, I think I just beat that,'" Connor said of topping the previous mark set by Trey Parker more than a decade ago.

Connor to not only showed off his skill as a runner Saturday but also the mental fortitude required to be among the state's elite.

"Nine times out of 10, you're not going to have the ideal conditions for a race. You really have to do the best you can with what you've got," he said. "One quote that I've heard is, 'Good athletes do good things with good conditions, but great athletes do good things with bad conditions.' You really have to mentally be prepared for any environment and be prepared to do the best you can with what you have."

Hitting a school record is a benchmark for an athlete in any sport, but it's nothing new for Connor. The Wilson Hall senior already has his name in the books after breaking the school record in the 1,600m run in the spring. He's nipping at the heels of two more, as well.


As accomplished as Connor has become in distance running, his introduction to the sport was far from perfect.

Connor first dipped his toes into competitive running in sixth grade. He didn't run cross country but decided to give track a try in the spring.

It didn't last long.

The young Baron quickly learned he suffered from Sever's disease, a common condition in growing children. The growth plate in his heel was preparing for his foot to grow and pulled at his Achilles tendon. It made running painful, especially long distances.

Connor sprinted in his first season, something he jokingly now regrets. His time in the 100m dash still looms in his profile on SC Runners, a time-keeping website. He spent last spring asking Wilson Hall head coach Rip Ripley for another shot at the event and he plans to do the same this season.

"It's like a 20-something, it's really bad," Connor said. "I kinda wanna go out there and crush it so it's not on there. He probably won't let me."

Ripley said he thinks Connor learned in that first year even if he didn't find immediate success.

"I think some of that stuff in middle school helped him create a very humble personality because he went through those struggles," Ripley said. "He wasn't that kid who in sixth grade was just crushing everyone and was overconfident.

"He certainly has confidence in himself, but he's not running around telling everyone how good he is. He just goes out there and runs and lets that speak for himself."

Connor gritted out his first season at Wilson Hall but elected to stay out of competitive running as a seventh grader.

Instead, the young Baron turned to other sports like baseball and tennis. While he enjoyed his time on the tennis court, his passion for running didn't diminish. His father, Dustin, was coaching with the cross country team in the fall, and Connor dove back in.

He wasn't the top runner an eighth grader, but Connor found a knack for distance running. He ran a 28-minute mile in his first race and hit new personal bests seemingly every race. That carried into track, where he became a full-time distance runner. One of the turning points in his young career came that spring when he ran the 3,200m race at the Ben Lippen Middle School Invitational, the first race on the new Columbia International University track.

"I ran my PR at that time, so technically I had the track record for like a week," Smith said.

His father was running late to that meet and arrived when Connor was a couple laps deep. He saw a different version of his son that day.

"He was just running along, and I was just like, "Who is that kid?' He had great form; he was looking really good. He's really coming into himself," Dustin said. "We were laughing about that time the other day. It wasn't a remarkable time, but he won and he pushed himself really hard to make that happen. I think that changed him."


When Connor started high school, he found his groove.

COVID-19 wiped out his freshman track season, but he spent the spring training. He entered his sophomore season and became of one Wilson Hall's top distance runners in both sports. He found himself near the top in most races and improved all year.

"That's when I started really getting focused in it, really wanting to compete. The seniors at the time were really motivating me," he said.

Connor's success continued in his junior season. He was at the top of the standings every race in the fall and was setting personal bests regularly. In the spring, he ran in the Coaches Classic Elite track meet and broke his first school record in the 1,600m run with a time of 4:23.43.

Despite the top Baron time, he finished seventh. Saturday's record was similar. He placed second behind Warren Sheperd of the Augusta Eagles.

"The competition really helps, especially when there's more," Connor said. "I know all these guys feel the same way I do; I just need to push with them and keep with them."

After getting that school record, Connor dominated the region and state meets. He finished in the top five in three individual events at the SCISA 3A state meet, claiming a state title in the 3,200m run. He finished second in the 1,600m and fifth in the 800m. He also ran on the third-place 4x400 team.

Over the summer, Connor competed in Ripley's Sumter Speed AAU program. He ran the 1,500m and 3,000m for the first time and set an AAU state semifinal meet record.

"The first day, I ran the 1,500 and I didn't realize until after the race that I could've hit the meet record for that race. I looked up what the 3,000 was and said I was going to hit that tomorrow," Connor said. "I went in, and it was just me running and I told myself I had to do it, and it ended up happening."


Connor doesn't want his record-setting days at Wilson Hall to be the end of his competitive running career.

"I think you really have to love the sport to want to compete at the next level," Connor said. "The recruiting process is kind of confusing at first, but once you get some help with it, once you get experience with it, it really starts flowing a lot more."

Recruitment for track and cross country is different than many sports. In theory, competition level shouldn't play a major factor. Times are times. In practice, however, that isn't the case.

"It is a little harder coming from a small school," Connor said. "Normally, we just compete in SCISA, which is a small area of schools, so the competition isn't as good. You have to go to the bigger meets."

Connor ran AAU track over the summer and plans to run indoor track this winter to expand his level of competition. He has his eyes set on Division I, but he's keeping his options open. The challenge is learning how to get your results in front of the right person.

"I wish I wish we were better at it. It's hard," Dustin said of his son's recruitment. "Setting up appointments, going to try to tour campuses, talking to the distance running coaches. I feel like we're running out of time get that done.

"We've got to map that into our schedule, which is tough to do because we're training all week. We have a series of Saturday meets, so having that time to really go talk to the college coaches is something that we haven't been able to do to the degree we want."


Running is a family event for the Smiths.

Connor's mom, Kristine, is also an assistant track and cross country coach at Wilson Hall. His older sister, Kaitlyn, also ran with the Barons and still runs the occasional half-marathon with Dad.

"It's not a chore. It's not something that we just have to do, it's something we get to do. We get to do be outside with Connor and the other kids. It's a great team," Dustin said.

The family environment also means the coaching never really gets turned off.

"With my dad coaching, it was that whole 'It's my dad, I don't want to listen to him,'" Connor said. "It kinda started off slow."

While the two have gotten used to working together, they still butt heads.

"We were out for lunch recently, and he gets a hot dog and I'm like, 'Not a hot dog! Come on,'" Dustin said. "I'm just the nagging parent most times, but there's so much that takes to become a competitive runner. It's the training. It's the workouts, of course, but it's what you eat. It's hydration. It's recovery."

Most importantly, they get to have conversations about the little things off the track.

"It's that feedback that we're able to have at the dinner table," Dustin said. "Most coaches with their team after practice or after meetings get to talk to him a little bit. I get the drive home. I get the dinner table. I get breakfast in the morning where we can have these conversations which is really, really advantageous."