ROB SPEARE was already a half-hour late. The tension showed on his face as he approached a group of boys stretching and presumed they were members of the Strath Haven track team, getting ready for practice.

"This is the track team, right?" asked Speare.

"No," one of the older kids told him, "this is the soccer team."

Speare left and returned sheepishly 10 minutes later to the same group, head down, staring at his feet. The joke was on him. It was the track team. Not exactly a pleasant intro for someone who at the time was a pale, skinny kid who never ran track before. That was just the start.

"I took a lot of abuse that year, and I think that's what drives me to run so fast now," he said.

Speare, now a senior, is among the top distance runners in the state. He owns the Strath Haven school record in the 3,200-meter run, and next week Speare will become the first male Strath Haven distance runner to compete in the Penn Relays. It's as if the insecure freshman who was trying track out for the first time at the behest of his mother was light-years from the multitalented person he's blossomed into.

It doesn't stop there with Speare, either. Aside from being among the best runners in the state, the 5-9, 135-pound Speare also is an accomplished trombone player, whose rare ability makes him among the best in the state in that as well.

But track is his main focus.

The Princeton-bound Speare is a three-time all-Central League selection. He placed sixth last year in the 3,200-meter outdoor state championship as a junior, when he set a school-record time of 9 minutes, 25 seconds. He finished fourth at indoor states this winter.

That's not bad for someone who never ran track before high school.

"It was really my mom's idea that I try it," Speare said. "Those first 3 days were terrible. I was late the first day and remember making a pact with a friend about quitting if we didn't like it. I was dying, I was a hurting pup. I really wanted to earn the respect of the seniors. I wanted to impress them and show I wasn't a quitter."

So he endured the pain of burning lungs during 6-mile runs. He had this terrible wheeze from asthma, which caused him to make this unusual sound of someone gasping for air with each step.

"The seniors didn't like that, and it still comes up from time to time, only in intense races," Speare said, laughing. "For the most part, I have control of it."

As he has controlled almost every 3,000- and 3,200-meter run in the area over the last 2 years. Speare went from a good runner as a sophomore to a great runner, exploding last season. He's flourished even more under Strath Haven distance coach Ed Bagdesarian this spring.

Understanding Speare's transformation is simple. He outworks everyone. On Tuesday, Panthers head coach Bob Jesson had to tell Speare to get on the team bus, because he wanted to run the 4-mile distance to Springfield - and then compete in the 3,200 against the Cougars.

"That's Rob," said Jesson, who coached Olympic gold medalist Leroy Burrell at Penn Wood. "He ran to a meet earlier this year and still ran the 3,200. Rob's goal is to reach 9:10. He's one of the top five or six in the state in the 3,200-meter run, and this is probably one of the strongest classes statewide in that event. His improvement has been amazing. He's just been totally dedicated. His sophomore year he decided he wanted to become a better runner, and that meant running 365 days a year. He's one of those kids you have to tell to take a rest."

But leisure time is spent on more work.

He picked up the trombone, again at the suggestion of mom, when he was in fourth grade. Speare wanted to play the cello, but the trombone was a band instrument. And besides, Speare liked the sound of it. Last year, he achieved the highest score at the state competition. He plays for Strath Haven's marching band, the school orchestra, the jazz band, the symphonic band and wind ensemble.

His junior and senior years, Speare has taken an instrumental music class, where he can play for 80 minutes a day at school. There used to be crunch time. His freshman and sophomore year, Speare would arrive home from track practice at 5 p.m. and scoot out of the house to rush to be at band practice by 6 p.m.

"I just have to make sure Rob doesn't overdo it," Jesson said. "Rob's a real inspiration to the team. He's definitely a special kid. We never, ever had a leader on a track team like this. He's breaking school records and was the first junior ever named captain of the track team here. But because Rob got involved in track so late, I think his best days are ahead of him, and he's just started. He only got serious 2 years ago. He gave up everything else but running and his trombone."

Now Rob Speare is the one laughing. *