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HAMMOCK: Collins Hill runner Ellis begins steeplechase with nation's fastest time

Collins Hill senior Daniel Ellis ran the steeplechase for the first time last weekend, placing first with a school- and meet-record time at Georgia Tech’s Coaches Invitational. (File Photo)

Collins Hill senior Daniel Ellis ran the steeplechase for the first time last weekend, placing first with a school- and meet-record time at Georgia Tech’s Coaches Invitational. (File Photo)

Steeplechase is a fun race for participants and spectators, as well as photographers angling for shots of runners splashing and tumbling in the water pit obstacle.

Unfortunately Georgia high school runners don’t get to experience it often. For one, it requires barriers and a water pit, not exactly stock options at prep stadiums.

Occasionally, local runners get their shot at steeplechase when meets are held at college tracks. Most have fun, some do OK and very few do what Daniel Ellis did at last weekend’s Coaches Invitational.

In his first-ever steeplechase, the Collins Hill senior took first at Georgia Tech with a school- and meet-record time of 6 minutes, 13.96 seconds on the 2,000-meter (1.25 mile) course. The time is the fastest this year, not just by a Georgia high-schooler, but also the No. 1 time nationally.

“We’ve been in that meet 10 or 12 years and we put people in (steeplechase) just about every year, but no one’s ever had the success Daniel had,” longtime Collins Hill coach Andrew Hudson said. “We’ve had a handful who’ve done OK. But Daniel was 20 or 25 seconds faster than any of those guys.”

Along with obliterating the school record, Ellis raced to the forefront of steeplechase runners nationwide. He already signed to be a distance runner at Appalachian State (N.C.), but a new race option has emerged in the matter of days.

“It’s an awesome event,” Ellis said. “It has more purpose than running in circles.”

Ellis’ college coach informed him this week that his time qualified him for USA Track and Field Junior Nationals, held in July in Eugene, Ore. A top finish in the steeplechase there would give him a spot on the Junior World Championship Team. He also will run the steeplechase at June’s New Balance Nationals in South Carolina.

Though he didn’t know a lot about steeplechase before last weekend, Ellis said the low time registered in his head pretty quickly.

“Oh yeah, I was surprised,” Ellis said. “I had looked at some guys who ran in the 6:30s and I was expecting that. I thought (the clock) said 6:33 at first and I thought, ‘Oh, OK.’ Then I saw it was 6:13. I was surprised. I was even more surprised that it was No. 1 in the nation.”

Ellis and Leonora Luce, a member of the Collins Hill girls team who placed second at Tech in a school-record time, were given the opportunities at steeplechase because of their fast distance times in track.

With minimal time to prepare, they spent the week leading up to the Coaches Invitational on the hurdles. There was no water pit that Collins Hill’s coaches could replicate, but Ellis said that obstacle didn’t bother him last weekend.

The four-year cross country runner’s value to the Eagles in official track and field events is still in distance events, where he has a chance to be a state placer — he was sixth in Class AAAAAA, fourth in the region and fourth at county last season in cross country. But leading into the summer, he plans to mix in training once a week at a steeplechase venue. The Eagle coaches also are letting him run the 300-meter hurdles, his first-ever hurdle race, in a junior varsity event next week as practice.

“It looks good that I will be doing (steeplechase) in college, too,” Ellis said.

That seems to be a safe bet.

Collins Hill has churned out as much top-notch track and field talent as any school in Georgia over the years, but it hasn’t produced a runner who excelled in college steeplechase since Natalie Florence more than a decade ago.

“Daniel definitely has a proclivity to it,” Hudson said. “He’s interested in the event, he’s excited about it and he’s very aggressive about it. He’s excited about training for it. He just took to it immediately. He’s a natural for it.”

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.