Naseem Smith glanced down at the backpack on his lap and pointed to the neon lime Nikes strapped to the side.
“They’re lucky,” he said of the well-worn sneakers he’s suited up in for every race in the last two seasons. “They’re old, but I run fast in them, so I keep them on.”
Smith first tried them on during his first season running track at Deptford Township High School, just two years ago as a sophomore. A former teammate let him borrow them.
The rest, literally, is history.
“It’s surreal – it happened so fast,” said Smith, who, fittingly, specializes in fast. “My first year of track as a sophomore, I wasn’t too good. It’s been a lot of hard work to get that success I’ve had here at Deptford. It’s a blessing. I put it all on God’s hands, I just did all of the hard work for it.”
In each of the last two seasons, Smith has been one of the best hurdlers in the state and a part of one of New Jersey’s top relay teams, too. The Syracuse-bound senior still has a chance to go out with even more glory and hardware in the upcoming spring season, but his winter was worth remembering, too.
Smith won the 55-meter hurdles at the South Jersey championships (with a time of 7.46) and managed to top that time at the Meet of Champions (7.43), where he was the runner-up to St. Augustine’s Sincere Rhea. He also helped lead Deptford’s 4×55-meter shuttle hurdle team to a time of 29.45 at the NJSIAA Group 2 Relay Championships, the fastest time ever at Bennett Complex in Toms River, a new overall state relays record, and the fourth-fastest time, regardless of venue or event, in New Jersey scholastic history.
If all that wasn’t enough, Smith also got a new PR (personal record) of 7.42 at the New Balance Indoor Nationals earlier this month.
“It was really special to watch,” Deptford coach Kevin Sherry said. “He really likes to talk about numbers and times and I’d be telling him to stay with the work and the times will come, and that’s what happened. It seemed like every week he was dropping time. And every week you’re getting kids pushing each other. He thrives in those situations. He looks forward to seeing the better kids, he lives for that challenge of trying to better himself against that competition.”
One of the most decorated track athletes in Deptford Township High School history, Smith earned another honor before the winter season gave way to spring: he is The Sun Newspapers Boys Winter Track Athlete of the Year.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” said Smith, who joined his brother, Kh’ion Smith, and fellow seniors Tyrece Brown and Tyriq Bundy on that aforementioned record-breaking shuttle hurdle team. “I never thought I’d be this type of kid, you know. Hurdles definitely changed my life for the better. Going to Syracuse, getting my grades up to go to Syracuse.”
Deptford Township as a whole did a remarkable job this winter. Of the 11 athletes in South Jersey to be named Sun Athletes of the Year, three live in Deptford Township: fellow Spartan Paige Clegg (girls bowling) and Camden Catholic High School junior and Westville native Brandon Mooney (wrestling).
“It’s a good school,” Smith said. “The teachers push you to do better and the coaches here are good, too. It’s a good environment.”
The winter was full of memories for Smith, ones he’ll cherish even as he takes his career to new heights in the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference in 2019-2020. But the meet that sticks out to Smith from the winter was the last one, at nationals.
Already considered one of the state’s best, Smith left the New York-based meet with a couple of new arm sleeves to designate his new accomplishment as an All-American.
Deptford’s relay team ran a 30:19 at Nationals, placing third. And it was also at Nationals that Smith hit his PR of 7.42 in hurdles (he ran a 7.47 in the finals to place fourth).
“I ran my best time – 7.42 in my 60 hurdles,” Smith said of the season-ending event, pitting the best of the best from all over the country against each other. “So my 55-meter time was 7.42 and my 60 meter hurdle time was 7.99. You run through the 55 mark and all the way to 60, too. That was my PR for the whole season.
“And I was already happy with the weekend. And shuttle hurdles, and me, my brother, Javon (Sanders) and Tyrece, we placed third, making us All-Americans. It was my first time being an All-American, so it was very satisfying.”
Smith’s rise from track rookie to All-American is pretty remarkable, considering he entered high school thinking baseball as arguably his best sport.
“I was always one of the better kids on my team,” said Smith, who also plays defensive back on Deptford’s football team. “I was always fast in the outfield. Then when I got older and we played against faster pitching pitchers.”
The senior laughed.
“I wasn’t with that, they were throwing mad hard,” he said. “I was like, I can’t do that anymore.”
And that turned out to be bad news for fellow South Jersey hurdlers.