Schmitt Reaches Point Of Fruition
Nov. 17, 2009
By Joe Darda
The scene is the 2006 Pac-10 Cross Country Championships. Cal sophomore Jake Schmitt is having a rough race, running in the middle-back of the field. Alongside him are Washington seniors Matt Owen and Kevin Peters, too, struggling through sub-par outings. Running in such close proximity to two Huskies, Schmitt is treated to a not-uncommon experience for runners in the Pac-10: the ubiquitous cheering of Washington head coach Greg Metcalf. At every corner of the course, Metcalf is there, giving Owen and Peters feedback and encouragement. Both are outside Washington's scoring five on this day, but Metcalf shouts, hollers, and yells regardless. Although the UW coach is not addressing him, Schmitt is struck by this enthusiasm, by this energy.
Three weeks later, Metcalf's team would finish 12th at nationals. Three months later, Schmitt would be a Husky.
As a senior at Redwood High School in the Bay Area, Schmitt was a state champion and finalist at the Foot Locker National High School Championships. A prized recruit, he could have run for any number of programs across the country, but he wanted to stay close to home, close to his parents and two younger sisters. In other words, Schmitt's shortlist looked something like this: Stanford, Cal.
Schmitt's parents, Tom and Laura, had both competed in cross country and track at Cal under still-coach Tony Sandoval. Although he seriously considered Stanford, Schmitt ultimately chose his parents' alma mater and their former coach.
'I had grown up around the Cal program and seen it from a fan's perspective,' Schmitt recalls. 'I knew I wanted a school that was good academically and I knew I wanted to stay close to my family. On my recruiting visit, I just fell in love with the atmosphere of the large public university and with the program.'
And yet, despite a seemingly ideal match, Schmitt's career in Berkeley did not go according to plan. His progress stagnated and Schmitt found himself finishing behind runners who, in high school, had been well off his pace. By the fall of his sophomore year he was considering a change and, after Pac-10s, Metcalf and the Washington program were increasingly on the Californian's mind. Schmitt was particularly impressed by what he saw in the results from NCAAs that November. While Cal had again failed to qualify for the championships, Metcalf had led a team of mostly walk-ons to a 12th-place showing, their highest finish in more than a decade.
'I remember looking at Washington in the results and being surprised; I didn't know hardly any of the guys,' Schmitt says of the 2006 Huskies. 'As someone who considers himself a student of the sport, the fact that I didn't know those runners told me there was something going on there, something beyond talent. I could see that the coaching was amazing and that they had a loyal following, that there was excitement in and around the program.'
Of course, the decision was far from easy. Transferring from California to Washington, due to conference regulations, required Schmitt to sit out the following year. He was also leaving a full-tuition scholarship at Berkeley to attend--and pay his way at--an out-of-state university. And, oh yeah, his entire family bleeds blue and gold.
It was around the time that Schmitt began contemplating a transfer, that his younger sister, Meagan, committed to play volleyball for the Golden Bears. For Schmitt, who is close with his siblings, this made a tough choice all the more difficult. However his family was supportive throughout the process.
'To say [transferring] was difficult is probably an understatement,' Schmitt says. 'I felt like I was leaving my track and field family as well as my actual family. But my parents totally understood where I was coming from. They were phenomenally supportive the whole way. And, yeah, they ran at Cal for four years, but they raised a kid for twenty-two.'
Enrolling at Washington in January 2007, Schmitt found adjusting to a new school and team challenging. He moved into a dorm room, a triple, in north campus and resumed training. Ineligible for a calendar year, Schmitt competed frequently, but always unattached. Within his first month in Seattle, he experienced an inescapable and uncomfortable part of in-conference transferring: racing former teammates.
'There was an understanding that I left,' Schmitt says, 'but there was also an understanding that we were family. That said, the first time racing against those guys was sufficiently awkward. But I'm still close with a lot of guys there and I'm still close with [coach] Tony [Sandoval]. He was actually a huge help in the transferring process. Your good friends stay your good friends.'
After a period of adjustment, which he likened to being a freshman all over again, Schmitt began to hit his stride. In the spring of 2008, finally able to wear a Washington jersey, Schmitt made up for lost time, making his first national meet appearance in the 10,000-meters, a feat he would equal in 2009. And, last indoor season, Schmitt claimed a coveted All-American trophy with a 9th-place finish in the 5,000-meter final.
'That was huge,' he says of his first All-American honor. 'That's why I transferred. That's why I came to Washington, to compete at nationals, to be an All-American. I really felt like it had all come to fruition, and it was really nice to be able to look back on my first couple years and see my growth.'
Besides his success on the track, Schmitt has been the most reliable man on the cross country course for the past two seasons. His 58th-place showing at nationals last fall led the Huskies to an 18th-place team finish and, this year, Schmitt is one of three front-running seniors leading the way for the Washington men. Along with Kelly Spady and Colton Tully-Doyle, Schmitt will be leading the Huskies in their second consecutive national meet appearance next Monday. On the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, Indiana, Schmitt, Spady and Tully-Doyle will be taking aim at top-40 individual finishes (All-American honors), as well contributing to what they hope will be the program's first top-10 team finish since 1993. Schmitt is confident in his team's ability: 'At this point all the cards are out on the table. We know we're fit and we know we've put in the work to be successful on November 23rd. This cross country season has been all about the team. There's something about it. We have an unbelievably altruistic group of guys.'
As for his Cal days, they are very much a part of Schmitt's past. His ring tone is no longer the Cal fight song and his parents' cars now proudly display purple and gold stickers (in addition to some blue and gold).
'I really don't define myself as a transfer athlete,' Schmitt says. 'I see myself as a Washington athlete.'