CARBONDALE -- Raven Saunders considered her junior year a bit of a downer. The 5-foot-5 senior at Burke High School in South Carolina won the state shot put title last year with a throw of 35 feet, 6 inches, well short of her goal. That might have been why Saunders was named the Gatorade national girls track and field player of the year on Wednesday.

"I won the state meet but I felt that my year was off because I didn't even throw past 40 feet," said Saunders, an SIU recruit who will compete for the Salukis in 2014-15. "Forty feet was the standard that I set for myself after my freshman year, so not even getting to that point was very disappointing."

Saunders was presented the award at a surprise meeting in her high school athletic director's office. A three-time state champion, she won the shot put and the discus titles at this year's meet and then set a national record in her best event at the Taco Bell Classic in April. Saunders' shot put of 56 feet, 8.25 inches broke the previous national mark set in 2003 by nearly two feet.

Her winning throw in the shot put at the Class AA state championships went 55-8.25. It broke the all-class state record by 11 feet. Saunders' gold medal-winning toss in the discus, 148-5, won the event by more than 42 feet.

Saunders won the shot put at the New Balance Nationals outdoor championships with a throw of 56-7.5.

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

In addition to athletic excellence, the award recognizes academic achievement and exemplary character on and off the field. A B student, Saunders is the president of both her senior class and Burke High School's student government. She has volunteered for two years as the school's bulldog mascot at athletic events and donated time for Burke's DECA chapter for emerging business leaders and SkillsUSA, a national student-empowerment organization.

"Without question, Raven is deserving of recognition as the nation's best high school girls track and field athlete based on her statistics on the track and the impact her accomplishments have had on Burke's success," Gatorade chief marketing officer Morgan Flatley said in a news release. "But she is also a shining example to peers and aspiring young athletes of what a leader and a student-athlete should be. She represents everything we hope for in a Gatorade player of the year recipient."

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.

Winners are chosen by a national advisory panel of sport-specific experts and sports journalists. Saunders is now a finalist for the Gatorade female high school athlete of the year award, which will be presented at a special afternoon ceremony prior to The ESPY Awards in July.

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 knows that whatever happens, she knows what it's about. And she's a great student of the sport."

618-351-5087 / On Twitter: @THefferman

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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