South Rowan's Caleb O'Neal and Michael York warm up on the track before a meet. photo by Jon C. lakey, Salisbury Post.

rbisesi@salisburypost.com

CHINA GROVE — South Rowan’s Michael York prefers to separate himself from the crowd. His running, which usually leads the pack in the 3A North Piedmont Conference, allows him to do that. So do his running shoes for the last few months, which include bright green shoelaces and a green sole.

“I like being different,” York said. “I’ve had them for probably three months now, so it’s something different. I like sticking out.”

York and teammate Caleb O’Neal will continue distancing themselves from other runners this fall when they resume running at the collegiate level. York will partake in the cross country and track teams at Lenoir-Rhyne and O’Neal will follow friend and rival on the course in West Rowan grad Dillon Kluttz to Southern Wesleyan to run cross country.

Standing 6-foot-1 and 150 pounds, York set the conference record for Hurley Park in 2010 with a 16:12 finish.

“It was kind of cool that day and there wasn’t a lot of wind,” York said. “The weather was just perfect for a good race that day.”

The top runner in the conference as well as the two-time county champion later set a school record with a 15:53 at the Midwest regional last year. York started running in middle school and ran cross country and track all four years of high school. He qualified for the indoor track state championships for the past three years.

“When it’s said and done, he’ll probably go down as one of the better all-time county runners,” said South coach Bob Marchinko of York. “He’s such a good leader and he’ll go on to do some good things.”

If York wants any more wild tennis shoes, he may have the flexibility to do so with Lenoir-Rhyne granting him a full scholarship.

York and O’Neal went to West Virginia for a summer trip to visit some of York’s family. Included were some scenic runs through the Appalachian mountains where O’Neal says York helped him become a better runner.

“I thank Michael for pushing me this summer,” said O’Neal, an all-county and all-conference selection in cross country.

“I think that was good bonding time for them and I think that’s made the difference as far as discipline,” Marchinko said. “We’re definitely going to miss both of them.”

O’Neal ran a 16:42 at the United Way Invitational and the conference championship this year, a personal best. Like York, O’Neal runs the 4x800 relay, the 1600 and 3200 meter runs in outdoor track.

His freshman year, O’Neal played soccer before he attended a track practice on “bring a friend” day. After several practice sessions, he was sold and later formed a friendly rivalry with Kluttz at conference meets.

“He was the best runner for West and we kind of had a rivalry,” O’Neal said. “I always tried to catch up with him because he was faster than me.”

Kluttz later showed O’Neal around Southern, where he was smitten.

“He introduced me to the coach and the team,” O’Neal said. “They offered me a good bit of money to go. [Kluttz] is a big reason I chose there.”

Southern doesn’t have track teams, but O’Neal choose the Warriors over Lees-McRae and Catawba. O’Neal placed fourth overall at the conference championship this year and eighth in 2009.

“At first I wasn’t really good so I didn’t really like it,” O’Neal said of track and cross country. “After that, I started getting better so everyone encouraged me to get better.”