It's easy to argue that no high school athlete in the Lowcountry was better at his or her discipline this year than Burke's Raven Saunders was at hers.
ALL-LOWCOUNTRY GIRLS TRACK AND FIELD TEAM
Honorable Mention: Michele Boykin, Bishop England; Maggie Hogan, Palmetto Christian; Annie Pascutti, Palmetto Christian; Lauren Pernell, Palmetto Christian; Aliyah Simmons, Ashley Hall; Michaela White, Ashley Hall; Hailey Sweatman, James Island; Otasia Hopkins, Woodland; MacKenzie Patrick, Palmetto Christian; Caroline Pascal, Porter-Gaud; Rose Marie Compton, Wando; Kayla Wright, St. John's; Tiera Gadsden, St. John's; Destiny McKnight, Goose Creek; Aaliyah Deveaux, Stratford.
Saunders, a senior at Burke, went on a three-month record-setting rampage this spring, establishing herself as one of the best shot putters in the nation - and not just in the high school ranks.
JUNE 12: Boys Tennis
JUNE 13: Golf
JUNE 14: Girls Lacrosse
SUNDAY: Boys Lacrosse
MONDAY: Girls Track
TUESDAY: Boys Track
WEDNESDAY: Girls Soccer
THURSDAY: Boys Soccer
JUNE 22: Athletes of the Year
In March, Saunders set the national high school indoor record with a throw of 56 feet, 7½ inches. In April, she broke the national outdoor record with a heave of 56-8½; both records were previously held by two-time Olympian Michelle Carter, who finished fifth in the 2012 Olympics. And in May, Saunders shattered the state high school record for the shot put by an astounding 11 feet with an effort of 55-8 at the state meet in Columbia.
Her throw of 56-8½ in April ranks among the top 15 in the U.S. this year for all women; Raven is the only high schooler in the top 15. There's little doubt she will compete for a spot on the U.S. team for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
So The Post and Courier's All- Lowcountry track and field athlete of the year already is preparing for bigger and better things. In July, she'll travel to Eugene, Ore., for the USA Junior Nationals; a top-two finish there will earn her a spot on Team USA for the World Junior Championships later in July, also in Eugene. And all of this is before she begins her college career this fall at Southern Illinois, which boasts one of the top throwing programs in the nation.
It's a lot to take in for Saunders, who began her career throwing in practice from the sidewalk next to Harmon Field across the street from the Burke campus.
"The only thing I really knew I could get out of shot put was school and an education," said Saunders. "I never dreamed about all of this."
Coach Herbert Johnson first spotted Saunders when she was a freshman, throwing at a meet at James Island High School.
"I was actually there to watch another athlete I was training," Johnson said. "I saw this young lady in the shot put pit throwing 32 feet, and I knew that 38 or 40 feet would win a state championship in her class. So I just encouraged her to keep throwing."
As luck would have it, the Burke coach at the time and his wife were about to have a baby. He asked Johnson if he could help out, and "I guess the rest is history," Johnson said.
Johnson has overseen Saunders' progess since then, but the pair hit a wall of sorts during her junior season. Saunders' progress using the glide technique - in which the shot putter "glides" across the circle, not spinning until she releases the shot put - had stalled. It was time for Saunders to try the spin technique, in which the shot putter spins twice across the circle before the release.
"I knew she would end up being a spinner, because she's on the short side," Johnson said of the 5-4 Saunders. "When we finally worked the kinks out and got acclimated to it, she really took off."
At an indoor meet in December in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saunders uncorked an throw of 53-81/4. Johnson and Saunders were surprised when a meet official informed them that was the No. 4 indoor throw by a high schooler in U.S. history.
Saunders' story took a heartwarming twist this spring when the Lowcountry rallied to support her quest to attend the U.S. Junior Nationals. Saunders set up an account at gofundme.com, and donors responded by contributing $6,525 to her fund, far surpassing her goal of $5,000. Families of Bishop England track athletes contributed more than $1,000 to the cause.
"That has meant a whole lot," Saunders said. "I've competed with athletes from Bishop England for a long time, and we'd always have fun laughing and joking around. They did so much to to help me out, and I'm not even on their team."
Saunders is not the only Lowcountry girls track athlete headed for bigger and better things. Fort Dorchester's Jasmine Quinn, who won four gold medals at the state meet each of the last two years, is headed for Kentucky. At the state meet, Quinn set state records in the long jump and the 100 hurdles, and her time of 13.55 seconds in the 100 hurdles ranks No. 2 among high school girls this year. Bishop England's Tony Colizzi, who led the Bishops to their second straight Class AA state title and 11th since 2001. is the coach of the year.
The All-Lowcountry team was determined by using performances at the state meets for the High School League and the S.C. Independent Schools Association.
Saunders, Sweatman shine at nationals
Saunders and Hailey Sweatman of James Island Charter High School put on winning performances at the New Balance Nationals outdoor track and field championships over the weekend in Greensboro, N.C.
Saunders, holder of the indoor and outdoor high school records in girls shot put, turned in a throw of 56 feet, 71/2 inches to win the under-20 title and set a New Balance Outdoors record, matching the national indoor record she set in April.
Sweatman, who won the Class AAA state championship in the girls pole vault this year with a jump of 11-0, bettered that effort with a vault of 12-31/2 to win the emerging elite division at the New Balance meet.