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Smith runs from maple leafs to palm trees

Andrew Smith’s search for the best competition his sport had to offer took him on a journey identical to the name of the sport he participates in — cross country.

The 23-year-old Toronto native has actually traveled across a country in order to find what he believes makes him a top quality runner.

Smith, a fifth-year senior on the University of South Florida men’s cross country team, landed at USF because he felt the competition level he could experience here would make him a better runner.

“I chose USF because I knew there would be a great group of guys around me, and that is what I needed to improve,” he said.

Smith’s journey eventually brought him to Tampa from Toronto, but it wasn’t a direct path, just as a cross country meet isn’t a straight-on race.

Smith began running cross country in the fourth grade on his elementary school team in Canada. He continued to run for fun up until high school. That is when all his other sports interests started fading away and running became the top priority.

When high school began, Smith opted to train with the Toronto Olympic Club team, an elite running club, in order to run against the best competition available.

After four years of running in high school, Smith decided to test his ability in the United States, something he said is not uncommon for Canadian athletes.

“There are no athletic scholarships available in Canada,” Smith said.

Another reason Smith left Canada was because the competition the United States and specifically college universities, offered was so much greater than in his homeland.

“Every race here is like an international competition,” Smith said. “In every race there are runners from everywhere.”

Smith left Canada for Campbell, a small Division I-A school in North Carolina, in search of a very competitive environment. But after two years, he didn’t find what he was looking for and felt it was time to transfer.

Smith started researching on the Internet to find possible schools to transfer to when he located USF. After looking at information about the school and statistics about the team, he decided to reach out to the Bulls’ program.

“I saw the quality of the team they had, so I decided to contact the coach,” Smith said.

Smith was looking for what he didn’t have at Campbell University, which was the level of competition he needed to continue to improve.

“I didn’t want to go to a team and be the top guy with no one around me,” Smith said. “(Competition) is what I needed to improve.”

USF coach Greg Thiel viewed Smith’s desire to compete against the best as an asset, prompting him to give Smith a spot on the team.

“To want to come here and run against the best in the country shows the type of competitor he is,” Thiel said. “Andrew could have easily gone to a smaller school and been the big fish in the little pond, so to speak, but he wanted to come here and go up against the best.”

Smith came to USF in the fall of 2000 and enjoyed some early success with his new teammates. The men’s team won the conference championship that year, and Smith led the Bulls as the team’s top finisher in the regional and NCAA championships.

However, after a very good first season, Smith’s 2001 season wasn’t as great. In fact, Smith redshirted.

According to Smith, the redshirt happened for two reasons. First, the secondary physical education major knew he needed an extra year of school to finish his degree. Second, USF endured a tough recruiting year, so he and the coaches decided to save the remaining year of his eligibility for this season, as opposed to using it on a struggling team that ended up finishing 11th in the conference.

“We didn’t want to waste my last year on a rebuilding year,” Smith said.

After a year off from competition, Smith rejoined his team this year looking to attack some pretty high goals in his final year as a collegiate athlete.

But as the lone senior on a men’s team that still lacks the experience of collegiate running, Smith has been thrust into a leadership role with the team relying on him to carry them through the season.

“He’s everything,” Thiel said. “Obviously all five runners are important, but he’s got to lead the way.”

Smith said he’s confident he can be the leader the team needs, and he looks forward to helping the younger runners become stronger competitors.

“Although I have individual goals, cross country is a team sport,” Smith said. “I have no problem carrying the team.

“I’m glad I can be the one to help our guys improve.”

And the younger runners, like freshman Sean Burris, are glad Smith is around to help teach them to become better runners.”

“He’s a brilliant runner,” Burris said. “I kind of strive to be like him, but I hope to be able to beat him someday.

“He makes me much smarter about running.”

So far this season, Smith has lived up to his responsibilities to the team, and he has also achieved great success as an individual. He’s won one race and finished in second place twice, along with winning the Conference USA Cross Country Runner of the Week award Sept. 10.

“He’s definitely set the tone for the team this year,” USF assistant coach Rita Arndt said. “Sometimes, I think he doesn’t realize how good he is.”

But Smith isn’t finished just yet. With the Conference USA meet approaching, there are still some things he’s looking forward to accomplishing.

“I want to win Conference USA overall,” Smith said. “I know I’m capable of winning, and I know I’ll be in the thick of things until the end.”

But Smith started his journey in search of the best competition, and that’s where he wants the journey to end.

“I really want to make it back to nationals,” Smith said. “That’s where the best guys are at, and that’s where the best competition will be.”