While the track and field world was shut down over the spring, Harrison High School's Sully Shelton began to hear optimism coming from one coach in particular in North Carolina.
And the words kept ringing in his ear.
Something special is brewing here.
"Through the spring, some could have looked at that like a negative," Shelton said of the season ending due to COVID-19. "But I didn't see that outlook. With the way it turned out, it was honestly great. I had so much time to talk to the coaches. And to me, there's nothing better to do then to talk to coaches in quarantine. It gives you a lot of time to reflect and grow. UNC's and Milt's big thing was this, 'Let's use this as a positive and keep moving forward.'"
On Friday, Shelton, a native of Kennesaw, Georgia and MileSplit's preseason No. 21 athlete over the cross country season, decided to follow his heart with his commitment to the University of North Carolina, joining a long list of top-level boys and girls recruits who have also chosen to do the same in recent days and weeks.
Thus far in 2020, the Tar Heels have received a firestorm of commitments from some of the nation's top runners and athletes: From Vestavia Hills' Ethan Strand, Homewood's Crawford Hope and Penn Valley's Colton Sands, to Denton Guyer's Brynn Brown, Marianapolis Prep's Sydney Masciarelli and Tewksbury Memorial's Makayla Paige.
Shelton, ranked No. 23 in the Class of 2021 by MileSplit, chose the Tar Heels over Virginia and the University of Mississippi.
"It's just an overall great school, the campus is beautiful," Shelton said. "And from a running standpoint, it's kind of structured the same way my high school is, the way (Chris) Miltenberg and (Dylan) Sorensen are building it and why they chose to come here from Stanford. They wouldn't have left Stanford if they didn't believe they could build it and get it in a better place."
* The Music City Distance Carnival, where Shelton ran 4:10
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Shelton, a three-time Georgia state champion across cross country and outdoor track and field and a Team Nationals qualifier in 2019, feels a groundswell building in Raleigh.
"We're going to be hungry to race, and we want UNC to be a top and national program and get after it," he said. "The vision is there. That's why I chose this school. The main reason is I believe we can be something phenomenal, and I want to be a part of that."
Despite losing his junior season to precautions surrounding COVID-19, Shelton has managed three state championships across his first two seasons. Last fall, he captured a GHSA Class 6A title in XC, was fifth at the Georgia Meet of Champions, third at the Team XC Southeast Region and 47th at Team Nationals. He posted five 5Ks under 15:30 on the season, including a best of 14:58.91 at the Coach Wood Invitational.
As a sophomore, he laid down an impressive 4:10.58 mile at the Music City Distance Carnival, and produced three 1,600ms under 4:20, including a PR of 4:16.49. He also ran 9:14.89 for 3,200m.
Fortunately for Shelton, he was also able to unofficially visit North Carolina's campus in February, before everything shut down. It reiterated his thoughts on the program's -- and the school's -- potential down the road.
"They were out there grinding," Shelton said of the UNC coaches and athletes. "If they're grinding, I'm going to grind and do everything I can to be the best I can be."
Weeks later, after narrowing a larger list of schools down, Shelton said he couldn't get the idea of UNC out of his head.
"I knew what to expect, since I had been there," he said. "It's kind of wrapped up for me, this is the place to be. It gave me a good insight on how things will be next fall."
Part of what drove him to UNC, he said, was the culture head coach Chris Miltenberg was trying to bring to the program. Shelton's own high school, Harrison, had become Georgia's best all-class program, and that was something, he said, that he was searching for in a collegiate home.
"It's so much different having a team atmosphere of success than being good individually," Shelton said. "Having that as a team team and doing something great together. I wanted to be a part of that. I totally trust Milt. He'll put UNC on the map. I also will do everything I can do be one of the top collegiate guys in the next couple of years."
- Recruiting Rundown series page
- Early Class of 2021 commitments
- Boys Class of 2021 (Last updated, Nov. 5, 2019) -- First Version (Nov. 5, 2019)
- Girls Class of 2021 (Last updated, May 1, 2020) -- First Version (Nov. 5, 2019)