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Rock Falls distance ace Smith accepts scholarship to Southern Illinois

This Rocket running south next year

Rock Falls’ Dawson Smith (right) finished fifth at the Class 1A state cross county race last year at Detweiller Park. He had qualified for the state meet each of the last 2 years.
Rock Falls’ Dawson Smith (right) finished fifth at the Class 1A state cross county race last year at Detweiller Park. He had qualified for the state meet each of the last 2 years.

Dawson Smith is going to the dogs.

To be more specific, he’s going to the Salukis.

Smith, a Rock Falls senior and one of the elite small-school runners in the state, announced this week he will continue his academic and athletic career at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He plans to run cross country and track for the Salukis.

He placed a call to Kevin Cataldo, the SIU distance coach, on Sunday night to inform him of his decision. He’ll sign an official letter-of-intent sometime in November.

“It was definitely a big relief,” Smith said. "It felt like 1,000 pounds was lifted off my shoulders. Now it’s great to be able to focus on the postseason.”

Smith and his parents, Jessica and Matthew, made an informal visit to the SIU campus this past summer. On Oct. 6-7, Smith and his mother returned to the campus for an official visit.

Smith met with Cataldo, hung out with the team, and went for an informal run with the Salukis. He then had dinner and bunked with the team the first night in Carbondale.

On the second day, Smith went on a tour of the campus. He also got to try on an official SIU cross country uniform. Everything proved to be a perfect fit.

“I liked the team a lot, and the campus is really outdoorsy, which I like because I’m a big fisherman and hunter,” Smith said. “I really liked how the coach [Cataldo] wanted me. At the First to the Finish [race in Peoria on Sept. 14], he was the only one who came and saw me and talked to me when I was done. I could just tell how he was talking to me that he really wanted me down there.”

Smith noted he’ll be joining a program that is not among the elite in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Salukis finished sixth at conference in 2018, despite having the individual conference champion in Josh Maier, who has since graduated.

“Right now they’re in the building stage, so I’m going there to help them build,” Smith said. “If I work for that team and help them to win the Missouri Valley Conference, that would be amazing to be part of that team.”

Smith’s scholarship includes full tuition and housing. He plans to major in criminal justice, and after graduation, join the Marines. A long-term goal is to work for either the FBI or the CIA.

Smith is the second Rock Falls boys runner to sign with a Division I school in the last 3 years. Brayden Hamblen, a 2017 graduate who won a Class 1A state title in 2016, started out at Illinois and is now at Tennessee.

“I really take pride that we send kids on to the next level,” Rock Falls coach Mark Truesdell said. “That’s always one of my goals, and I’m really happy for Dawson.”

Smith is a two-time state qualifier for the Rockets. He placed 15th as a freshman with a time of 15 minutes, 17 seconds over the 3-mile Detweiller Park course. As a junior, Smith was fifth in 15:10.

This season, Smith won the prestigious First to the Finish Invitational in 14:58.

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