CARBONDALE - Raven Saunders, a thrower in South Carolina who has signed with SIU, was named the Gatorade national player of the year earlier today in a ceremony at her high school.

Saunders, a 5-foot-5 senior, won the shot put at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor Championships with a throw of 56 feet, 7.5 inches. She set a national record in the event in April with a toss of 56-8.25 inches at the Taco Bell Classic and was ranked the No. 1 high school shot putter in the country.

This year's Missouri Valley Conference outdoor champion in the shot put, Mary Theisen of Indiana State, won the event with a throw of 54 feet, 8.75 inches. The NCAA champion's winning throw was 58-2.

The Burke High School standout won the Class AA state championship in her home state earlier this year in the shot and the discus, taking the discus title by more than 42 feet. Saunders won the discus title with a throw of 148 feet, 5 inches, to help her team finish 10th.

All of it came after what Saunders described as a down year in 2013, a year in which she still won the state shot put title.

"I won the state meet but I felt that my year was off because I didn't even throw past 40 feet," Saunders said. "Forty feet was the standard that I set for myself after my freshman year, so not even getting to that point was very disappointing."

The Gatorade player of the year program recognizes one winner in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in football, girls volleyball, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball and boys and girls track and field. The program honors one national player of the year in every sport.

In addition to athletic excellence, the award recognizes academic achievement and exemplary character on and off the field. Saunders carries a B average and has donated her time to SkillsUSA, an organization that empowers youth. This year is the Gatorade national player of the year award's 29th anniversary. Peyton Manning, Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, Kerri Walsh, Derek Jeter and Emmitt Smith are just some of the former winners.

Saunders is believed to be SIU's first recruit to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in track and field, possibly in any sport. Saluki track and field coach Connie Price-Smith said Saunders will be able to handle the expectations.

"I think that she's a very level-headed person, so I think that she will come in and adjust just fine," she said. "I think she is very experienced and I think that she's had a lot of good coaching, and just know that whatever happens, she knows what it's about. And she's a great student of the sport."

618-351-5087 / On Twitter: @THefferman

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