Following a 2018 recruiting season in which the Paladins grabbed big-time talents like like Lauren Peterson and Quinn McConnell, head coach Rita Gary has kept her feet on the ground and has continued to push, securing two more distance talent commits thus far.
In September, John Champe (VA) High School's Bethany Graham committed to
the Paladins. Currently No. 23 on the MileSplit50 top 25, the Virginia athlete is gaining national success with her efforts this cross
country season, with a recent third-place performance at the Great American Cross Country Festival and US No. 13 time of 17:09.50.
Then on Thursday, North Iredell's Jonna Strange announced her
commitment to the Paladins. The North Carolina standout had an impressive
start to the cross country season, too, with a PR of 17:10 for US No. 14. The senior was among the nation's best indoor runners, with
a US No. 18 two-mile of 10:35.30.
Strange also collected her first NCHSAA 3A State Championship titles
indoor and outdoor in the 3,200m.
So what's the secret behind Furman's ability to land these statewide stars?
It could be the success. The Paladins have won six straight Southern Conference
Championships in cross country, with a seventh-place finish at the 2017 NCAA
Country Championships, which was its best finish in program history. Currently, Furman is ranked No. 18 on the USTFCCCA
Coaches' Poll, with a week until Pre-Nationals at Wisconsin.
I spoke to Gary recently looking for answers on how she recruits.
"Are you someone that creates, whether it's culture or
excellence or momentum where it hasn't been before," Gary said. "I think what
speaks to me about the women who choose Furman is that they don't see
themselves following anyone else's path. They see themselves as confident
enough, assured enough that 1. They can create their one path and; 2. they want
to do it with a lot of like-minded women. They are not intimated by that, but
instead inspired by that."
In her seven seasons coaching Furman's women distance, Gary has
turned budding high school talents into dominant All-Americans.
Her two latest
examples are seniors Gabrielle Jennings, a graduate of First Baptist Christian (LA), and Savannah Carnahan, a grad of South Forsyth (GA). Sophomore Kristlin Gear, a graduate of Fort Myers (FL) High School, was an NCAA Championship qualifier in the 3K steeplechase in 2019, too.
Jennings was the most decorated distance runner in Louisiana
history, winning over 30 individual LHSAA State Championships. The First Baptist Christian alumna held PRs of: 4:52.20 (mile), 7:03.52 (2KSC), 10:43.75 (3200m),
18:16.86 (5K) and 18:12.73 (5K XC).
At Furman, she's blossomed. Last
season, Jennings ran 20:24.9 through 6K to earn Southeast Region honors and now owns the Furman indoor mile record of 4:40.51. The senior just missed the podium at the NCAA
Outdoor Track and Field Championships, with a ninth-place finish in the 3K steeplechase
(9:58.83) to become a second-team All-American. After her championship performance, she competed for Team USA in the steeplechase at the 2019 NACAC Championships.
Carnahan currently leads Furman's women's cross country team. The senior is the second cross country All-American in the history of
the women's program, with her 20th-place finish at nationals last
year. She also made her third consecutive NCAA East Preliminary appearance in
the 5,000 and had a birth in the 10,000m and 1,500m. Collegiately, she's at the
top of her game running 4:18.67 in 1500m, 15:45.10 at 5,000m, 33:35.11 at 10,000m
and 19:54.5 through 6K.
During her time at South Forsyth High School, she was
one of Georgia's best, favoring the longer distances. She had personal bests
of: 4:50.96 (1600m), 7:24.36 (2KSC), 10:27.35 (3200m), 18:32.98 (5K track) and
17:08.72 (5K XC).
Keeping in mind Gary's words of creating culture, there's another potential game-changer that is also considering the Paladins.
Northern's Marlee Starliper, currently No. 4 on the MileSplit50's top 25 individual rankings and the No. 3 recruit in MileSplit's Class of 2020 recruits, could
mark a shift in talent acquisition if she chose Furman, too.
The Pennsylvania athlete is also considering NC State, Oregon and NAU.
She's already had a legendary high school career, with six performances ranking her top 10 all-time. This summer, she finished second in the 3K at the Pan American U20 Championships and this fall she opened up with a US No. 3 debut of 16:30.
With Starliper's range and dominance, she could present a huge dividend for the Paladins almost immediately.
But whether that happens or not, Furman is creating
a culture of success with its women's distance program.
"Our culture, I wish I could bottle it up and sell it
because it would be so helpful to all young women's teams," Gary said. "It's
just a really special thing. So, the people that do choose to come with us, you
can know for sure that as soon as they say Furman, they're not a one-size fits
all person. They are unique, special and willing to try something different."
Their 2020 recruiting class is already making noise. But maybe they're not finished just yet.