Saunders chases second NCAA title

Former Burke High School star Raven Saunders will go after her second NCAA shot put title on Thursday. (Southern Illinois photo)

She’s still in her freshman season at Southern Illinois University, but former Burke High School star Raven Saunders already has become one of the faces of NCAA track and field.

Saunders was one of the select few NCAA athletes chosen to appear on the NCAA Championships preview show designed to publicize the event, which is set for Wednesday through Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

That’s what becoming the first freshman in NCAA record books to win the indoor shot put title — a feat Saunders accomplished in March — will do for you.

Now, Saunders is chasing her second NCAA title, with the shot put finals set for 8:40 p.m. Thursday. This time, she enters the championship as a favorite.

“It feels great. It’s a really good feeling,” Saunders said recently. “It reminds me of last year (as a senior at Burke) because I had such a successful season last year. Coming into the national meet, it’s just another big meet — just like any other big meet that I’ve ever had. I’m just looking forward to going in and doing what I need to do.”

Southern Illinois coach Connie Price-Smith said winning a second title might be more difficult for Saunders.

“Coming off of indoors, I’d like to see Raven go out and perform very well. It’s going to be tough, though,” said Price-Smith. “There are a lot of people who are aware that the target is on her back now, and a lot of them are going to want to knock her down. She’s going to have to go in there and compete.”

Saunders, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation behind LSU senior Tori Bliss, figures it will take something near the career-best 61 feet, 1.25 inches she threw at the NCAA indoors to win the outdoor title.

“I think it will be around 61 to 62 feet again this year,” she said. “It all comes down to what everyone is feeling like and what everyone is throwing. For me, mentally it’s going to be the exact same thing: To go in with the mindset that I want to win this title and that I really have to work my behind off on every single throw. I can’t take any throw for granted.”

Saunders, who is the only American junior to throw 18 meters (59 feet), has added the hammer throw to her shot put and discus duties this season. At the NCAA West Regional, she fouled on a discus throw that likely would have qualified for the NCAA Championships.

“I actually like the hammer,” she said. “I always wanted to try it, and I finally had the chance with coming to college. Being able to get experience and progress really well in three events at one time, it’s really changed my perspective on training and being just a one- or two-event athlete. It’s actually worked out pretty well.”

As she wraps up her freshman year — “the year has flown by,” she said — Saunders is happy with her decision to go to Southern Illinois.

“Of course during this first year I had times where I thought, ‘What if I went to the big school?’ and the things that I would have gotten,” she said. “But the material things can’t compare to a national title and the numbers that I’m lifting in the weight room and the numbers I’m throwing at practice and the teammates I have here. Those things can’t compare.

“I’m really proud and happy about my decision, because now in talking to other collegiate throwers, when I tell them who my coaches are, they are completely shocked and surprised. For me, I did my research and knew where to go to get the best out of me.”