Saluki Track and Field signs No. 1-ranked shot putter, eight more for 2014-15

    Raven Saunders

    Raven Saunders

    March 17, 2014

    By Tyler Wooten

    CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Saluki track and field has unveiled nine signees for its 2014-15 signing class, which includes the No. 1-ranked girls shot putter in the country -- Raven Saunders (Charleston, S.C./Burke HS).

    Even considering the fact that SIU is coming off a recruiting class that signed the nation's No. 2-ranked high jumper in 2013 (freshman Kyle Landon), overall, this group looks to be one of the most talented classes at SIU in recent years. In addition to Saunders, the Salukis have signed two highly-touted pole vaulters in No. 1 Illinois girls pole vaulter Lindsey Murray (Harrisburg HS/Harrisburg, Ill.) and national No. 1-ranked junior college pole vaulter Jonathan Walsh (Woodstock, Ill./Lincoln College). SIU has also added five distance runners and one sprinter.

    "I'm really excited about this class coming in," said SIU head coach Connie Price-Smith. "We've got a lot of really good athletes in a lot of different areas coming in. We have two very good pole vaulters, one shot putter that will be an amazing athlete and we have five distance kids and one sprinter coming in. Overall, we are really excited about our class, and we're looking to hopefully fill a few more spots."


    Raven Saunders
    Charleston, S.C.
    Burke High School
    Intended Major: Marketing

    • No. 1-ranked girls shot putter in the country
    • Owns the national high school girls shot put record (17.25m/56-07.25)
    • 2014 High School Indoor National Champion (shot put)
    • Three-time state champion, three-time All-State

    Saunders, a 5-5 shot putter from Burke High School in Charleston, S.C., comes to Southern as one of the highest-rated prospects to ever choose SIU, even though she only burst onto the national throwing scene this past year. After a disappointing junior season, she decided to make a change to her throwing technique and it has paid off huge dividends.



    Saunders started using the spin throwing technique in the ring in her first ever indoor meet in December and shocked the world with an 11-foot personal best that, at the time, ranked as the fourth-best throw in high school girls history on a national scale. She didn't stop there, as this past weekend Saunders shattered the all-time record by nearly two feet at 17.25m (56-07.25) at the indoor national meet. If made at SIU, that mark would rank second indoors and third outdoors all-time in school history.

    "She's only about 5-5 and she's very explosive," said SIU throws coach John Smith. "The fact that she (broke the record) in the biggest high school meet of the year against the best high school girls in the country tells you a lot about her."

    What was even more telling was her field series at the New Balance Nationals this past weekend. Saunders had broken the record three times before she broke the 56-foot plane for her final mark.

    "That tells me a lot about what type of competitor she is," Smith said. "She didn't just hit one throw and call it a day, she kept charging at it."

    Saunders comes into a rich throwing history at SIU, and that turned out to be part of the appeal.

    "Raven is a student of the sport," Price-Smith said. "She's very knowledgeable about what she needs to do and what she wants to do and where she wants to go. I think there is a lot of room for her to continue to get better. She's pretty young at the spin (technique), she's just been doing it for a year which kind of shows her big jumps this year. I think that she has a long way to go as far as the goals she wants to accomplish, and hopefully we'll be a big asset in helping her get there."

    "She wants to be good," Smith said. "She's the kind of kid that wants to be the best person in the place. That's what her attitude is, and she's coming to the right place if she wants to do that."

    SIU beat out BCS powerhouses Arizona State, LSU and UCLA to sign Saunders, but Southern's strategy was simple: show, don't tell.

    "She said that I was a lot like her high school coach, that our thinking was a lot alike," Smith said. "The way I coach my kids is a lot like how her high school coach treated her. She liked the other schools, but she was more interested in what we do."

    "I think that (her signing) says a lot (about SIU)," Price-Smith said. "I think that we're just going to continue to get better. We've had good years, and I think that we'll continue to have good years. I think that we'll continue to get top recruits and hopefully we'll do a little better on the national and conference level than we have."


    SIU pole vault coach Brian Porter inherited only four pole vaulters when he joined the coaching staff in 2012. In just one season, though, he has completely transformed the program by adding 10 vaulters this past year who have instantly stepped up in production. In 2014 alone, each of his pole vaulters have set a personal best, and his female student-athletes now own four of the top-five clearances indoors in school history -- three of whom are freshmen.

    And now with his two high-profile 2014-15 signees, Porter has his sights set high for the future.

    "It makes a world of difference when you have a head coach that believes in our event and puts the resources that we need in that event," Porter said. "I feel like we're going out and getting the right kids and putting them in a position to do well."

    Jonathan Walsh
    Woodstock, Ill.
    Woodstock North HS
    Lincoln College/Iowa Western CC
    Intended Major: Exercise Science

    • No. 1-ranked junior college pole vaulter (5.20m/17-01.00)
    • 2012 IHSA pole vault state champion

    Walsh will become a Saluki after spending time at two different junior colleges: Iowa Western Community College in 2012-13 and Lincoln College (Lincoln, Ill.) in 2013-14. Walsh should be an instant help to the Saluki male pole vaulting group next season as a junior.

    "Jonathan is going to be a great asset to our team," Porter said. "He's gonna help us in so many ways. Coming in, he could win the conference meet outright right now if he was here."

    He currently owns the best junior college clearance in the nation at 5.20m (17-01.00), which -- if made at SIU -- would rank tied for fourth indoors and sixth outright outdoors in school history.

    "We're looking at him to really make a jump to the national meet and really try to get him there," Porter said. "Talking to him, that's his goal as well, to be an All-American. And as a coach, that's what I want for him: to help our team score at the national meet."

    Walsh could also be a multi athlete, as he is also well-versed in the high jump (6-02), triple jump (42-06) and long jump (22-06).

    "He is extremely talented, he has come so far in the last year from what he's been doing," Porter said.

    Lindsey Murray
    Harrisburg, Ill.
    Harrisburg HS
    Intended Major: Education

    • No. 1-ranked girls pole vaulter in Illinois (3.81m (12-06.00)
    • Tied for fifth nationally
    • 2013 USA Junior Olympics All-American
    • Three-time all-conference, two-time all-state

    Murray, a local product of Harrisburg, Ill., is currently the top-ranked pole vaulter in the state with a clearance of 3.81m (12-06.00) -- which is also good for the fifth-best in the nation. The three-time all-conference and two-time all-state selection came home with a Junior Olympics All-American award last summer in the pole vault -- where she was the youngest competitor in the women's division. Her PR of 12-06 would rank third all-time indoors and second outdoors if made at SIU.

    "Lindsey is one of those homegrown girls next to SIU," Porter said. "She knows how to work hard, and that's one thing I was very excited about when I was recruiting her is that she's a very hard worker. I know that she's going to put her nose to the grindstone and do everything she can to help our team out. She has a lot of upside from where she's at right now."


    SIU distance coach Matt Sparks is looking to restock his arsenal of runners that have earned him three Missouri Valley Conference cross country championships in the past two seasons. But, at least on the men's side the emphasis is different for the first time during his tenure at Southern.

    "The men as a group is one of the more talented middle-distance groups that we've recruited here probably since I've been a part of the program," Sparks said. "The emphasis of our distance group over the last eight or nine years has been on cross country and 5K and 10K specialists. We put more of a focus in this class on middle distance, 800 meter and 1600 meter guys that really fill that need."

    For the women, it was more about finding talent to replace team anchors such as Sadie Darnell, Lacey Gibson, Kelley Gallagher and Mobola Rotibi when they graduate in the coming year.

    "On the women's side, the two freshman girls we've signed are going to really fill in and support the girls that were conference cross country champions this past fall," Sparks said. "They're going to fill in when those girls depart in two years, so it will be nice to have those two younger girls around for a year while the upperclassmen continue to challenge for conference titles."

    Kyle Carter
    Maple Park, Ill.
    Kaneland HS
    Intended Major: Undecided

    • Three-time state cross country qualifier
    • Member of 2013 IHSA state champion 4x800 meter relay team
    • Member of 2013 IHSA state runner-up 4x400 meter relay team

    Carter comes to SIU from Maple Park, Ill., where he was a three-time qualifier at the state cross country championships. But, his most impressive success comes in the middle distance events -- where he should help out Southern immediately. He was part of the 2013 state champion 4x800 meter relay team and the runner-up 4x400 meter relay team that same year. Two of his personal bests in the 400 meter (49.6) and 800 meter (1:54.46) runs would already rank among the top times on Southern's current roster.

    Shannon Effron
    Newburgh, Ind.
    Reitz Memorial HS
    Intended Major: Social Work

    • Three-time qualifier for the state cross country championships
    • State qualifier in the 3200 meter run in 2013

    Effron, a native Hoosier of Newburgh, Ind., comes to Carbondale as a three-time qualifier in the state cross country championships and a qualifier in the 3200 meter run (11:30) last track season. She finished 29th at the state cross country meet this past fall, during which she ran a personal best 5K time of 18:36 and was a regional champion.

    Zac Justus
    Pontiac, Ill.
    Pontiac HS
    Intended Major: Marketing

    • 2013 indoor state champion in the 800 meter run (1:53.49)
    • School record holder in the 800 meter run (1:53.49)
    • State qualifier in the 1600 meter run in 2013 (4:22.10)
    • Three-time qualifier for the state cross country meet
    • Four-time All-Conference selection in cross country
    • 2013 XC all-state (18th place)
    • Three-time team MVP across both cross country and track

    Justus also holds success in both the longer distance events and the middle distance runs as well. He holds the Pontiac school record in the 800 meter run at 1:53.49, which also won him a state title in the event indoors in 2013. Justus, along with Carter and Denis O'Callaghan will look to shore up the Saluki mid-distance crew after the departure of successful senior Zach Dahleen.

    Denis O'Callaghan
    Orland Park, Ill.
    Carl Sandburg HS
    Intended Major: Undecided

    • All-state in the 4x800 meter relay in 2013 (third place)

    O'Callaghan is another talented 800 meter (1:58.50) and mile (4:22.30) distance runner, who was a member of the third-place 4x800 meter relay team from Carl Sandburg High School in 2013. O'Callaghan shares a similarity with Dahleen, as they come from the same hometown (Orland Park) and high school (Carl Sandburg).

    Allie Sweatt
    Edwardsville, Ill.
    Edwardsville HS
    Intended Major: Social Work

    • Three-time qualifier for state cross country championships
    • Three-time top-five sectional finisher in cross country
    • Four-time cross country all-conference selection
    • Two-time county champion and 2013 regional cross country champion
    • Holds school cross country record in the 3-mile (17:53)
    • Holds school record in the 3200 meter run (11:27.80)

    Sweatt looks to fit right in with Southern's talented women's squad with her list of credentials. The Edwardsville, Ill., native owns two school records to her name, along with two county and one regional cross country individual title.


    Alicia Reed
    O'Fallon, Mo.
    Fort Zumwalt West HS
    Intended Major: Psychology

    • School record holder in the 400 meter dash (57.12) and 4x400 meter relay (4:07.16)
    • Fourth-place finisher at the state meet in the 400 meter dash in 2013
    • Four-time All-Conference and All-Academic selection
    • Named team MVP in 2013

    Reed will come into SIU with an impressive 400 meter dash time of 57.12, which helped her to a fourth-place finish at the state meet in Missouri her junior season in 2013.

    "She's very talented, very untapped, very raw," said SIU sprints coach Chidi Enyia. "I've watched some video of her at the state meet, and she's aggressive, but still has a lot to learn, a lot of potential there to run fast. I think she can be a really good quarter-miler for us."

    Reed has been as impressive in the classroom, as she has earned All-Academic honors each of her four years at Fort Zumwalt West -- in addition to four all-conference selections.

    "She's a good student, she has a very competitive mindset, and I think she can come in that first year and make an impact," Enyia said.