Nearly a decade ago, as a grade-school kid romping around western Union County soccer fields, Ben Huffman fell in love with running.
“When I played soccer, I wasn’t always the best or the fastest,” Huffman recalled with a smile, “but I’d usually be the least-tired at the end.”
Huffman developed his runner’s mentality while a student at Weddington Elementary School and, later, Waxhaw’s Sandy Ridge Elementary. And by the time he transferred to Charlotte’s Providence Day School for middle school, he knew he wanted to leave his mark in the sport one day.
And that’s exactly what has happened.
Now a Providence Day 11th-grader, Huffman put his footprint on school, conference, state and national landscapes this past fall while completing one of the most outstanding cross country seasons the region has seen.
Huffman cruised to the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association title with a school- and meet-record time of 15 minutes, 42 seconds. A week later, he shaved nearly 19 seconds off that already-impressive clocking to win the private-school 3A state crown in 15:23.01 – more than 22 seconds faster than the second-place runner.
But Huffman wasn’t done there.
With a time of 15:22, Huffman finished fifth at the Nike Cross Nationals Southeast Regional, which earned him a trip to Portland Meadows, Ore., for the national championships. He was the first Providence Day runner to accomplish that feat.
Although he’d dreamed of one day doing this well, the suddenness of his success has caught Huffman off guard.
“I didn’t expect all of this,” Huffman said with a laugh. “There was always the goal to win states and run as fast as I did, but I never thought that I could do it (my) junior year. States was amazing to win that, and so was conference because we won as team champions again. And to top all that off by qualifying for nationals, it was truly an amazing season.”
Before qualifying for nationals, Huffman also proved his wares in a 3,200-meter race, finishing second in 9:08.03, which ranks second in Mecklenburg County history and 20th in state history.
That achievement even gave the modest Huffman pause.
“It’s really cool to think that I have the chance to be remembered after I’m done with high school,” he said. “But it also gives me something to chase – maybe get to that No. 2 or No. 1 all-time mark or something like that. But No. 1, that’s what I’m going for.”
Huffman encountered a rain-soaked course while competing at nationals in Oregon, where he finished 128th. He said it was an unforgettable experience, in more ways than one.
“It gives me a huge amount of confidence to know what I did as a junior, but also I think one of the great things about going to nationals was that I got to see people who were much better than me,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. There’s always someone who’s going to be better. But it does give me confidence to know that I’m doing the right things and trust in my training.”
Which prompts the question: How good can Huffman be?
The query actually stumped Providence Day coach Ben Hovis, who’s an institution of sorts in local running circles.
“I don’t know,” Hovis said. “He still needs to get physically strong, and we’re still working on that. The 9:08 was very eye-opening for the 3,200. That jump that he made from 9:42 to 9:08 is pretty unreal.
“I’m usually really good at guessing what (runners) are capable of doing and helping them with goals and that sort of thing. I sit around with our coaches and guess the times that kids are going to run. Well, Ben surpasses my thought a lot of times.
“So, really, I don’t think anyone knows how good Ben can be.”