Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo
Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo
ESTERO — Asked to recall their early impressions of Estero High cross country/track coach Jeff Sommer, seniors Kacy Smith and Katy G. Solis didn't struggle to find the words.
"Crazy, loud, annoying," Smith said.
"I thought he was crazy," Solis added. "I didn't know how people could put up with him, but I learned to love the old man."
While proudly wearing T-shirts of their next team, Smith and Solis agreed that Sommer paved the way for the Wildcats runners to sign with the University of Mississippi on Friday morning.
"It all pays off," said Smith, who will head to the Southeastern Conference this summer on a full athletic scholarship. "He's a man with a big heart and very emotional. He's defiantly got us to where we need to be today. All of this wouldn't have been possible without him pushing us every day. All the hard workouts — that we were miserable throughout — have brought us to this."
Smith was named the Naples Daily News Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year in 2011. Solis captured the honor in 2012.
Last fall both runners committed to Ole Miss, where they're slated to run cross country and track. Chances are good that the 5-foot-2, 125-pound Smith and the 4-foot-9, 79-pound Solis won't ever be mistaken on campus for 6-foot-5, 260-pound Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 football recruit who signed with the Rebels on Wednesday.
Friends since they first met in a kindergarten class in Bonita Springs, Solis and Smith led Estero to an undefeated season and its third straight state cross country championship last fall. Solis finished runner-up as she nipped Smith by a fraction of a second in the final.
Nobody needed a 4.5 grade-point average — which is what Solis carries as one of the top students in the school — to know what college the standouts were signing with inside an Estero High lunch room Friday that was full of Rebel blue and red.
Everything was stamped with Ole Miss, including the signs on the wall, the baseball caps, the pullover worn by Sommer, the shirt worn by principal George Clover, the pens used for the signings, the cake shared among family, friends and teammates. There were even Ole Miss napkins.
Sommer could have used one of those napkins as he fought back tears while speaking to the audience.
"I've never had two kids with as much heart as these two kids had for four years. When I say four years, it's not three months a year, it's 12 months a year," Sommer said.
Watching their coach become emotional wasn't a surprise to his runners.
"That's expected. He cries when we leave practice in the morning," said Smith, who won the 2A state championship race as a sophomore in 2010.
Clover, whose secretary is Smith's mother, also praised the dedication that the Ole Miss-bound runners have shown in Sommer's demanding program.
"You've got to be one heck of an individual to get up and be ready, and I do mean ready," Clover said. "When he says start at 5 (a.m.), he really means be loosened up and ready to go at 4:45."