Maryville High School cross country team heads out on a run to start their practice. The Spoofhounds continue to practice and participate at meets with extra precautions in place such as students not participating due to quarantine.

The transition to a new level of competition causes some freshmen to harbor some unrealistic expectations that can be detrimental. For Maryville cross country’s Connor Blackford, those expectations haven’t shown any signs of slowing him down.

Blackford ran in his first high school meet via the Bishop Leblond Invitational Oct. 3. One of the biggest changes he noticed from middle school cross country was the course length.

“I had very few expectations going in because I hadn’t run that distance,” Blackford said. “It was pretty difficult. The middle school races were about two miles compared to this 3.1. So, at that 2-mile mark, I was really feeling it. My last mile was much slower, but I was able to hang on there at least a little bit.”

Despite running an unfamiliar distance, Blackford cranked out the fastest time ever run by a freshman Spoofhound. His 5,000-meter performance of 18 minutes, 5 seconds and 10 milliseconds shattered the previous record by 22.1 seconds.

“I was shocked, man,” Blackford said. “I mean, I was tired. When someone told me that I’d gone 18:05 — because I knew the freshman record was 18:26, and I had been eyeing that a little bit — but I was shocked to break it by 20 seconds. It was very surprising.”

Blackford said it was a good surprise to cross the line in that time, but he didn’t see himself running that fast until later in the season. Similarly, coach Rodney Bade was happily surprised by Blackford’s first race, and he said the freshman will only get better.

“I think he will just continue to gain fitness,” Bade said. “The part of his race that he lost contact with Cale (Sterling) and Jag (Galapin) was the second and third mile. He is pretty much with them for the first mile. He can go out that hard right now, and as we continue to stack week on week, I think he’ll just get stronger and stronger through the second and third mile.”

At this point in his training, Bade said a flatter course would suit Blackford better because his strength isn’t quite to the same level as his fellow Spoofhounds yet.

After testing positive for COVID-19 in early August, Blackford was forced to the sidelines, resulting in his absence in the team’s first three meets. Athletic programs around the country are taking extra precautions when having athletes return to their sport, and Blackford’s case was no exception.

“It’s been tough to see the team have a lot of success,” Blackford said. “I had the thought that there’s going to be that race, and I’ll finally get to compete. You know, I’ve been training and I’ve been working to finally get to run, so it’s been tough, but it’s been good to finally get out there.”

Through his quarantine and Return to Play periods, Blackford’s love for running kept him motivated to catch up to speed. The love started when Blackford was in seventh grade. Coincidentally, Bade was leading the program in which Blackford started running with.

“I went to the camp over the summer and immediately fell in love,” Blackford said. “I did it my seventh and eighth grade years — both years I could in middle school. I didn’t find that love until that first camp with coach Bade.”

Over the three years he’s been coached by Bade, Blackford has enjoyed a program that suits him well.

“He’s been great,” Blackford said. “He has this training document engineered and tailored to each person, and he’s been a great help with finding what’s right for each person. He’s got all the knowledge of a good running coach, and it’s been really able to help us through all this.”

Having Bade as a coach in middle school has helped Blackford transition to high school, as the athlete-coach chemistry is already sparked. Now, as the new kid on the course, the upperclassmen are who he looks to as a mold of greatness.

“They’ve been great motivation,” Blackford said about his teammates. “They’ve always been my kind of goal, you know, I kind of push myself to stay with them. It’s been great fun with them, they’ve certainly supported me, and I’ve benefited from having them on the team.”

After running himself into the middle of the Spoofhounds’ top five, both Blackford and Bade are confident about his role in upcoming championship meets. Giving credit to Blackford’s mature demeanor for a freshman, Bade projects Blackford as the team’s No. 4 runner, if everything goes well.

“I’m not throwing out anything really specific for him,” Bade said. “I don’t want to put a limit on him, but at the same time, I don’t want to put any extra pressure on him. As long as we can have a healthy week after a healthy week, I would not be surprised if he’s very close to our two and three by the end of the season.”

Blackford is looking to break the 18 minute barrier by the time each ’Hound crosses the state championship tape. With expectations in the rearview mirror, Blackford is ready to capitalize on his abnormal freshman season and continue winning meets.

“I’m excited,” Blackford said. “It’ll be fun to really get to help the team — I’ll probably be in the four spot, so my score will count. I’m excited to run my best and know that I’m running for myself, but I’m also running to help our team perform well as we go into the postseason.”

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