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Ashland senior runner Stein commits to Oregon

The pipeline carrying distance runners from Ashland to Eugene is active once again.

Cameron Stein, a senior on the Ashland boys cross-country and track and field teams, has committed to run for the University of Oregon, becoming the second Grizzly in the past couple years to do so.

EJ Holland, winner of six individual state championships and the state record holder in cross-country, is now a freshman for the Ducks.

Because of COVID-19, Stein hasn’t had a chance to compete since the fall of his junior year in 2019, when he helped Ashland claim its first cross-country state championship in 26 years.

He’s taken a proactive approach to unique recruiting challenges, running time trials with teammates and sharing the results with college coaches.

Stein narrowed his list of preferred schools to four, the others being Portland, St. Mary’s in Moraga, California, and Chico State in California.

He chose the Ducks last week when Oregon distance coach Ben Thomas — impressed by the Ashland runner’s time of 3 minutes, 57.2 seconds in a 1,500-meter trial — came calling.

Thomas made a verbal offer over the phone a week ago Sunday, and Stein received a written offer Thursday.

Oregon is renowned for its track and field and cross-country programs. It has won 13 straight Pac-12 Conference men’s track and field titles, including seven under head coach Robert Johnson, and will host six of the next seven NCAA championship meets at rebuilt Hayward Field.

Stein is eager to join such a revered program.

“I’m super excited, obviously,” he said. “It will be super nice to be with EJ again, and I know one of the other freshman recruits, so it will be fun to be with them and the history of Eugene and Hayward Field and the running culture of Eugene. That will be a great place. I’m more excited than scared, for sure. It’ll be fun.”

Oregon has a roster of about 20 runners for cross-country, and a handful of athletes receive scholarships. Stein was offered a roster spot as a preferred walk-on.

He had a similar offer from Portland, with which he’s been in contact for more than a year, and ran time trials in part to move into scholarship range with the Pilots, his second choice. St. Mary’s and Chico State each offered scholarships, he said.

“You kind of know, based on what times you’re running, what schools will look into you,” said Stein. “So I knew I was close (for Oregon). They don’t have an exact time you have to hit, but 3:57 is around a normal recruit for them.”

Normal, of course, went out the window in the coronavirus era.

At the 2019 Class 5A cross-country state meet, Stein placed fifth in 15:27.2 over the 5,000-meter course at Lane Community College in Eugene.

He would have been the No. 2 returner to state this fall if sports weren’t postponed, behind only teammate and classmate Reed Pryor, who was fourth in 15:18.8.

Stein and Pryor, who has committed to Harvard, had goals this fall of repeating as the team champion and placing in the top five as individuals at the Nike Cross Nationals Northwest Regional, thereby advancing to nationals.

Their training increased to about 60 miles of running per week by the summer.

Stein entertained thoughts of winning the 5A crown, but he knew from whence the stiffest challenge would come.

“Reed is a super-talented runner and works super hard,” said Stein. “I know it wouldn’t have been easy if I did it, but I definitely thought about it. You have to shoot big with the goals.”

The next nearest returner from 2019 was more than 11 seconds behind Stein.

Among the big goals he and Pryor had were to eclipse 15 minutes at state, which would have put them in rarified company. Only six times has a state winner in any classification finished in less than 15 minutes.

Karl Pryor, Reed’s father, took over from Hans Voskes as the Ashland cross-country coach in June. He has been the Ashland Middle School coach since 1999 and for two decades saw runners graduate to the high school ranks.

Among them, Stein.

“I think he really exploded onto the scene his junior year of cross,” said Karl Pryor. “Before then, perhaps, his times would not have drawn much attention from Division I coaches. But last fall, he started putting up times and places and results that I think were eye-popping, for sure.”

As such, Stein was primed for a strong season in spring track before it was postponed until after the new year unfolds.

“I really grew into my junior year,” said Stein, “so junior track was looking good for some big PRs.”

An indication came in a June time trial, when he ran 50 seconds faster in the 3,000 than he had in setting a personal best as a sophomore.

The 8:35 he has since posted in the 3,000 would have cracked the Class 5A top-25 all-time list.

Stein took part in five time trials since June.

He has shown steady improvement, and the results in his times has been dramatic, said Karl Pryor.

“He’s incredibly coachable and one of the hardest working runners that I’ve seen at the high school level,” said Pryor. “He’s come to identify himself as a runner and really wants that. He’s put the work in, for sure. He does all the little things, the 1% things, to improve, and it’s paid off.

“What I’m so excited about is, I can see him continuing to develop at a program like U of O. That’s really exciting.”

Freshmen aren’t expected to make an immediate impact on the varsity, said Stein, unless they’re of the caliber of Holland and other scholarship recruits.

“I guess for me, freshman year will be learning from EJ and the guys older than him who kind of teach the younger guys the ropes,” said Stein. “Just developing and getting used to the higher mileage in college.”

College cross-country meets are 8,000 meters in the regular season and 10,000 meters at regionals and nationals.

Until it’s time to head north, Stein is hopeful there will be high school seasons in 2021.

The cross-country season is slated to begin with practice Feb. 22 and run through late April. The track season would follow.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Ashland senior Cameron Stein, shown during the 2019 cross-country championship season, would have been the No. 2 returner to state behind teammate Reed Pryor. Photo from Cameron Stein.