Kacy Smith waited until she finished lunch — a chicken bowl at an Applebee’s in Tampa — and got back into the car with Estero High School cross country coach Jeff Sommer before she let her emotions take hold of her.
Offered a full scholarship at lunch by Ole Miss coaches, the Wildcats senior began to cry.
“It’s just an opportunity that a lot of people aren’t given,” said Smith, a winner of individual state cross country and track titles and the lead runner on Estero’s three-time reigning cross country state champions.
“That was more happy tears. I was so excited. I can’t explain how it feels to have people from another state notice how talented you can be and how much you love the sport.”
While big-dollar sports like football and basketball can offer enough full scholarships to easily fill out rosters, non-revenue sports like cross country are left dividing a smaller number of scholarships among athletes.
That makes Smith’s full ride more than a flattering compliment. It’s a financial relief for her and her family.
“That’s definitely going to be a weight lifted off my shoulders,” said Smith, who can formally sign with the Rebels on Wednesday at the start of the regular period for football, soccer, cross country and track and field.
“I get emotional because it’s such a big decision. The whole thought of being away for four years at college is just mind boggling.”
Sommer said his long-time, top-tier boys’ and girls’ programs have seen only one other runner earn a full athletic scholarship: two-time state high school champion and former N.C. State All-American Bona Jones.
“Full rides are very hard to come by in cross country,” Sommer said. “They wanted Kacy at all costs.”
Smith will be joined at Ole Miss by Estero teammate and childhood friend Katy Solis, who was offered cross country’s more customary combination of academic, athletic and financial aid to pave her way.
Solis — who stands all of 4 feet, 9 inches and weighs just 79 pounds — is a 4.5 GPA student who will be her family’s first to go to college, along with her fraternal twin sister.
“She is pound for pound the fastest runner in the state of Florida,” Sommer said. “You would never know when she gets on the starting line she’s as tough as she is. Her stride is so small. She’s taking double the steps.”
The soft-spoken Solis, known as “Little Katy” to friends and teammates, credits Sommer with helping turn her shy nature into a killer instinct in competition.
“I have to be feisty,” Solis said. “I’m always made fun of for how short I am. That gave me a drive. Whatever shape or size you are, you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
In that way, Solis is much like Smith and her own family.
“My family’s always had the drive to be something better,” Solis said. “I’ll get a chance to do that.”
Rare as full athletic scholarships are in sports like cross country, schools can work around the limits by coordinating academic aid through admissions departments.
“I know that it can,” Fort Myers High boys coach Yancey Palmer said of athletics influencing academic aid.
In some cases, academic aid replaces any athletic money altogether. In 16 years as a high school coach, Palmer said he’s had only about 10 runners receive even partial athletic scholarships.
That includes a record haul this year with four of his runners receiving some athletic money, including top runner Ace Brown to the Savannah College of Art & Design.
“There’s so few opportunities for these guys, particularly in the state of Florida,” Palmer said. “A big school like UCF doesn’t even have men’s cross country and track.”