When Brian O'Neal took the head cross country coaching job at the University of Mississippi, he brought a lot of confidence with him from the University of Florida. It was extremely infectious — especially on current McMinn County High School senior Haley Ward.
The reigning Class AAA individual state champion recently committed to continue her running career at Ole Miss.
Doubling as a four-year soccer starter and McMinn's all-time leading goal scorer, Ward has run in only one meet this season. That was Saturday, when she won the McCallie Invitational girls' title by 14 seconds.
"I haven't heard another coach that had the same goals as me," she said. "He knows I can be a good runner even though I've played other sports."
Ward, who picked Ole Miss over offers from Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, has high expectations for the rest of this year and her collegiate career as well.
"I want to win state again with a time of around 17:45," she said. "When I get to Ole Miss, I want to be All-SEC as a freshman, and while I'm there I want a team championship and an individual championship."
McMinn County coach Tim Smith said his last individual state champion before Ward — Laura Koob in 2002 — let him handle most of her recruiting. Not Ward.
"It's a humbling experience seeing the letters and emails from schools recruiting her," Smith said. "I'm a competitive person — almost to a fault — and Haley's just as competitive as I am. A runner like her doesn't come around often; she eats right, trains right and does everything she needs to win."