South Medford freshman Emma Schmerbach nears the finish in winning the Rogue XC Invitational Saturday in Phoenix. [ANDY ATKINSON/MAIL TRIBUNE]

Setting the pace

For all her exploits while running cross country and track at Sacred Heart Catholic Middle School — and there were plenty — even Emma Schmerbach was nervous when she toed the line last Saturday for her first-ever high school race.

The South Medford freshman spent the buildup to the Rogue XC Invitational around Hagler-James Park in Talent trying to calm her nerves, but it wasn’t until she finally got to the starting line that she felt at ease.

Then she went out and made everyone else uncomfortable.

Racing on her first 5,000-meter course, the 14-year-old Schmerbach went out in a flash and ultimately finished in first place with a time of 19 minutes, 20.75 seconds. Runner-up Faith Schultz of Grants Pass finished in 20:24.18.

“I went out and I was just going to see if someone went out with me, and if so, I’d just run with them,” said Schmerbach. “But no one did, so I just went out and made my own pace.”

And that was as impressive as anything she did on Saturday, according to Panthers head coach Josh Wallace.

“She had a decent-sized lead almost immediately and never backed off,” said Wallace. “Her lead continued to grow through the race, and she just kept pressing and never stopped racing even though she was well ahead of everyone else.”

Part of that was due to high school inexperience, and an even bigger part to her love of competition. And most importantly, love of winning.

“I’m used to running 3,000 meters, so I went out at that pace and it was just hard to keep it for another mile,” she said with a laugh. “I just did my best to keep going.”

Schmerbach said she went out with around a 5:50 pace for the first mile, then moved to around 6:13 in the second mile. After that, the only thing that mattered was the finish line and the fact that no one was around her.

“It was nice knowing that I had it in me to be able to just go out and have a good race even if I’m in high school now,” said the 5-foot-7 standout.

Schmerbach’s time is the second-fastest for a freshman at that distance this season in Oregon (Grant’s Annelies Quinton has gone 18:21.4). She ranks fourth among Southwest Conference runners, 34th at the Class 6A level and 49th overall in state.

“It was definitely an exciting day,” said Wallace, whose Panther girls won the event with five runners among the top-20. “The other coaches and I have been talking about how we wonder how good Emma is going to be, so we were excited about her race. I’m not going to say I was surprised, but I was very pleased with how she raced and we are definitely looking forward to seeing her in other races.”

That next opportunity comes Wednesday with the rescheduled SWC pre-district race around the Medford National Little League fields. The girls freshman/sophomore race, which will include Schmerbach, is at 3:45 p.m. There will also be junior/senior races for boys and girls.

“In regards to Emma, what I’ve been most impressed with is that she enjoys running and she’s competitive and she likes to win, but at the same time she’s also very humble,” said Wallace.

At Sacred Heart, Schmerbach was the Southern Oregon Middle School Athletic Conference champion at 3,000 meters from sixth through eighth grades. She’s had similar success in track, and as one of the top up-and-coming runners Medford has to offer, humility will be important as she works to fit in with an older, different crowd.

“She’s a real joy,” said Wallace. “It’s always a little bit tricky when you have somebody new come onto the team, especially if they are younger or really good. The idea is they’re going to be displacing some veterans on the team or upperclassmen projecting themselves as the Nos. 1, 2 or 3 because all of a sudden this newbie comes along. But all it really does is makes us better.”

“Our girls, Emma and all included, have been wonderful through it all,” added Wallace. “Jazmin Duncan, who is our senior captain along with Halyn Gwaltney, and all the girls have embraced her and she’s been gracious from the start. There hasn’t been drama or any king-of-the-castle thing going on.”

Schmerbach echoed that sentiment.

“Everyone’s really sweet and really nice,” she said. “I found a really good group of people at South. It’s just a great team and we’re all close, so it’s really nice.”

It only stands to get more challenging for Schmerbach as she gets pushed by the older and more experienced runners in the SWC and statewide, but she relishes the opportunity.

“It’s nice to be younger and be able to compete against all these other people,” she said. “I actually really do like it when there’s girls that are faster than me because it pushes me to be better. It’s also nicer when they can set the pace and I can just tuck in behind them. It’s easier when you can just run with them and then try to do your best at the end instead of just running on your own.”

While running with the pack may be easier, it doesn’t appear like Schmerbach will find herself in such circumstances for too long.

“We were trying to keep it a secret,” Wallace said of his elite freshman. “But I guess that’s out now.”

— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488,, or

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