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RCC good fit for Vail

The college plans of many local athletes came to light last week during national letter-of-intent signing day.

One of the more intriguing announcements came from Crater distance runner Walter Vail, a two-time state champion.

Rather than choose a big school, for which he had options, Vail elected to stay close to home and joined the fledgling cross country program at Rogue Community College.

The senior turned down overtures from the University of Washington and Boise State, in particular, and each school showed quite a bit more than passing interest.

But Vail, who only began distance running two years ago — "He's a sophomore, running-wise, for us," said Crater assistant track coach Justin Loftus — wasn't comfortable making a big leap.

"It's mostly because I wasn't ready to make the huge jump to a big Division I college or anything," Vail said after cruising to victory in the 3,000 meters at the Crater Classic Saturday at Dutch Meyer Stadium. "I wanted to stay close to home, so it was a good option for me."

RCC's men’s and women’s cross country programs debuted last fall under coach Cole Watson, himself a former Rogue Valley schoolboy distance star. Watson won seven state championships at Rogue River High, then enjoyed a full career in the vaunted University of Oregon track and cross country programs.

"Yeah, it was hard to turn down something from a Division I college, but I think RCC is a better fit for me," said Vail. "I feel like he's (Watson) a super-good coach, and having a new program, he seems like he's really excited to be doing what he's doing."

Vail's time on Saturday, in only his second 3,000 of the outdoor season, was 8 minutes, 52.66 seconds.

Afterward, he said cementing his college plan was a relief.

“I’d been stressing all year, so it feels really nice to finally have it done and not have to worry about it anymore,” he said.

Vail’s best time last year came at the Class 5A state championships at Hayward Field in Eugene. He clocked 8:37.37, which would be the seventh-fastest time in the nation this spring.

Vail followed that breakthrough with another title in cross country. He toured the Lane Community College 5,000-meter course in 15:39.

Earlier in the season, he posted one of the nation's top-10 times when he won the Max King Invitational at Jackson County Expo in 14:57.2 — the first Comet to eclipse 15 minutes.

The signing of Vail to RCC was certainly a coup for Watson.

"In my opinion," the Osprey coach said, "he's the top distance runner in the Pacific Northwest. It's been a long time since I've seen someone his age race with the control and confidence that he does. He's gonna be special."

By extension, Vail figures to get exposure to Division I training, given Watson's time at Oregon.

RCC had a successful first season in 2015, placing seventh out of 12 teams in the Northwest Athletic Conference.

"It's a great setup," said Loftus. "I'm really excited to see what (Vail) can do over there, and Cole's really excited. I think it'll be great for the program."

RCC is a two-year college, and Vail would have the option of transferring to another school anytime.

"Maybe eventually I'll end up there," he said of a four-year college. "We'll see how I feel and see what works for me at that program."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune

Crater's Walter Vail cruises to victory in the 3,000 meters at the Crater Classic Saturday. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON