Russell Hornsby realized a long-held dream when he signed in the fall with the University of Oregon, the premier distance running program in the country for nearly half a century. But his 1 minute, 53 second best at 800 meters, a terrific time for most high school runners, left him with nagging doubts about whether he really belonged with the elite at Oregon.
"Oregon is just stacking this year, and I was really excited to be part of what is largely considered its number one recruiting class ever," said Hornsby, a Williamsburg native who runs for Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Md. "But at 1:53 I was just hoping to get on the track there."
Hornsby has since erased any doubts about whether he belongs in Eugene. He has twice run under 1:51 this spring, with an open best of 1:50.8 that ranks him sixth among high school runners nationally on the most recent Track & Field News magazine list.
"It gives me so much more confidence and assures me I really deserve to go to Oregon," said Hornsby, the son of multiple Grammy-winning artist Bruce Hornsby. "I knew running 1:53 is faster than some of the long-distance runners there, but by running 1:50 I'm pretty sure I'm faster than any of the 800 recruits."
Hornsby's sub-1:51 800s on consecutive weekends – one as part of a 4x800 team at the Penn Relays – were the culmination of a rise to national prominence in the two years since transferring from Jamestown High to Georgetown Prep. Hornsby had some good moments in his three years at Jamestown, particularly as one of the scoring top-five on the 2008 AA cross country state championship team, but he often struggled.
He was injured a lot, in part he thinks, because his bones grew faster than his muscles. And he was something of a fish out of water as a middle distance hopeful on a Jamestown team with five other runners who would go on to compete in Division I at longer distances: '08 state cross country champion Andrew Colley and 2010 national indoor mile champion Colin Mearns among them.
So, late in what would be his first junior year of high school, he decided to transfer to a more middle distance oriented program. He found Georgetown Prep.
At Georgetown Prep he sat out the fall and winter of his second junior year to preserve his eligibility, then debuted with a splash. At the same National Scholastic Indoor Championships where Mearns won the mile, Hornsby – a 2-minute 800 runner who had run about 1:56 in a practice at Jamestown – ran a 1:54.6 split to help Georgetown Prep win the 4x800 relay.
"That really validated my decision to go to Georgetown Prep," he said. "I was really happy that it was working out, because it's a pretty drastic decision, not only to switch to a new school where I knew no one in an area I'm unfamiliar with, but to repeat a grade."
The decision looks better and better. Hornsby, whose twin brother Keith will play basketball at Division I North Carolina-Asheville, ran a best of 1:53 as a junior, then signed with Oregon.
He clocked 1:52.6 in the indoor nationals this year, finishing fourth overall despite running in the slow heat. His 1:50.6 800-meter split at the Penn Relays in April rallied Georgetown Prep from tenth to fourth, and he followed that with the 1:50.8 open a week later.
His muscles have caught up with his bones and these days. Hornsby, 5-8, 115 pounds as a Jamestown sophomore, now has a 6-2, 170-pound build common to elite 800 runners.
With his prep career over and his confidence soaring, he can't wait to get to Oregon.
"The training I've been doing is great, but it's not collegiate training," he said. "I feel like I'm just scratching the surface of my potential.
"I hope ultimately I can be a 1:46, 1:45 guy. Who knows what can happen in four years?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun