* Ella Kurto (left to right) and Karina James have recently committed to Toledo
By Garrett Zatlin - MileSplit Recruiting Correspondent
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There are few instances in the NCAA when the stars align as perfectly as they have recently for the University of Toledo women.
In the summer of 2019, the Rockets hired coach Andrea Grove-McDonough as their Director of Cross Country and Track & Field.
The 48-year-old had formerly built a great reputation at Iowa State and at North Carolina, but she had been relieved of her coaching duties at the University of North Carolina that summer to no fault of her own. The Tar Heels underwent a massive coaching revamp that year and introduced Chris Miltenberg as their new distance coach and Director of Track and XC.
Grove-McDonough's departure from Chapel Hill eventually led her to the state of Ohio, where she would take the reins of a sneaky-good Toledo program. A couple years later, with a full and uninterrupted summer of recruiting in the books, we're finally beginning to see just how impactful she can be on a program.
On Wednesday, Toledo landed the women's program's biggest recruit to date in Saratoga Springs (NY) senior Ella Kurto. In recent weeks, though, Toledo also got pledges from Indiana state champ Karina James and fellow Indiana standout Bailey Ranta.
The Indiana native is a highly underrated distance talent who has yet to fully realize her potential. While her personal best times of 5:09 for 1,600m and 10:52 in the 3,200m may not garner national attention, her recent 5,000m personal best effort of 17:56 certainly catches eyes.
Ranta hasn't finished outside of the top three in any cross country race that she has toed the line for this year. To see her dip under 18 minutes, regardless of the course, suggests that we will see noticeably faster times from this Chesterton High School senior in the future.
Ranta was Grove-McDonough's first big recruiting win of the year, mainly because she was able to identify a talent with so much upside.
However, what truly validated Grove-McDonough's recruiting prowess was her recent verbal commitments from James and Kurto.
James, who is a senior at Lowell High School, has been a cross country Goliath in the Hoosier state. On the track, she has posted personal best marks of 4:52 for 1,600m and 10:38 in the 3,200m. Kurto, meanwhile, was the No. 1 runner for Saratoga Springs' national champion cross country team in 2019 -- as well as an All-American at Team Nationals -- and was a crucial member of the Blue Streaks' national-recorded setting 4-by-mile team at Outdoor Nationals this past spring.
Admittedly, James has been slightly overshadowed on the track by her fellow in-state competitors. At the IHSAA State Championships from this past spring, she finished sixth-place in an ultra-elite 1,600m final and finished fourth-place in a similarly loaded 3,200m final. In comparison, Kurto didn't get a chance to run in a state championship meet in 2021 -- New York's scholastic season was still hampered by restrictions over COVID.
Both of those races yielded personal bests for James. Kurto would eventually run 4:35 for 1,500m and 10:06 for 3K.
However, the track isn't necessarily the best domain for James or Kurto. Instead, both thrive on the grass and dirt.
James won the 2020 IHSAA Cross Country State Championship title over a very talented field which included national-caliber star Addy Wiley, recent Oklahoma State commit Kayla Politza, current Penn State freshman Zoe Duffus and many other top talents. Kurto has been starring for the Blue Streaks ever since she was in middle school.
The year before that, James finished fourth-place at the state meet as only a sophomore. However, that wasn't her most impressive performance of the 2019 season. Instead, her best race resulted in an outstanding ninth-place finish at the Midwest Regional Championships for Team Cross Country Nationals.
In that race, James ran her 5,000m personal best of 17:41.
Kurto, meanwhile, was 14th at Team Nationals in 2019 and ran a personal best time of 17:58.30 on a wet and soggy Glendoveer course in Portland, Oregon. She's considered one of New York's top distance talents; in 2021, she is expected to shine, too.
Simply put, James and Kurto are star-worthy recruits who are now on their way to Toledo. That isn't a sentence that I was expecting to type prior to this week.
But make no mistake, Toledo has landed strong distance recruits before and they have some quietly strong names on their roster. Many of the program's recent -- and current -- distance standouts have predominantly come from overseas.
It's now apparent that Coach Grove-McDonough isn't content with letting her Power Five counterparts take top distance talents off of her scouting list.
Scoring both Ranta, James and Kurto is a massive statement to the entire Mid-American Conference as well as the other coaches who are recruiting out of the Midwest. Perhaps Grove-McDonough is ready to make the Rockets a legitimate power in the distance ranks.
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