In life, the true definition of best friends are a pair, or a group, of people who are always available during the best and worst times.
However, the relationship that South Webster cross country and indoor/outdoor track and field athletes Kayleigh Blevins and Hailey Marshall have is even unique, even for being best friends.
And knowing that each person is better when the other is around — both on the pavement as well as off of it — Blevins and Marshall ultimately knew that they had to continue the next chapter of their lives together.
So when Shawnee State University cross country, indoor, and outdoor track and field head coach Eric Putnam came calling for the pair’s services, it made the Bears — a perennial powerhouse who sits just 35 minutes away from South Webster Junior-Senior High School — the logical fit.
The pair confirmed that the fit was right for them on Thursday morning, as the pair made their signings official with Putnam’s programs in a joint signing ceremony that was held in South Webster.
For both student-athletes, they consider themselves fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to not only run in college, but to share their passion of running together.
“We’re best friends, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to run together,” Marshall said. “We can’t function without each other or run without each other.”
“It’s a privilege to be able to go and run at the collegiate level,” Blevins said. “It’s nice to know that (SSU head coach Eric Putnam) noticed us.”
However, it’s an opportunity that cross country and track and field coach Tim Conley, along with fellow track and field coach Josh Horner, know is a deserved one for both individuals.
“To see them sign to run at the next level is very exciting,” Conley said. “I’m very happy. They have the ability to produce at the next level, and they’re staying close to home to do it for a nationally ranked program.”
“It’s a truly awesome feat,” Horner said. “It’s been great watching both girls mature from when they were freshmen to their senior year, and how serious they are about running now. Their work ethic and consistency is top-notch, and they are truly senior leaders in the cross country and track programs. They’re always here, they’re always wanting to do a little bit more, and they’re willing to put in the time to get better. It’s been awesome to watch them grow and mature as student-athletes.”
Over the course of their four-year careers, Blevins and Marshall have proven to be consistent forces on each of the South Webster running units as both individuals put together career-best marks of 21:28 and 22:47 — according to Ohio Milesplit — during their cross country careers. Their efforts in the sport allowed the Jeeps — who had only won two conference titles ever in the sport as a team before the pair started their high school careers — to claim two SOC II titles in their four seasons under the South Webster banner.
“They’re changing the board,” Conley said of Blevins and Marshall. “They’re taking the South Webster cross country and track and field programs to a whole new level.”
Need proof of that? Their records will certainly provide evidence to such a change. Both individuals have clicked off times of under 1:30 in the 400 meters (1:16 for Blevins and 1:22 for Marshall) while also obtaining times of 2:50 and 3:05, respectively, in the 800 meters. To top that all off, Blevins is a part of the unit’s record-setting 4-by-800 relay unit — one that could very well break its own record in the spring.
“The motivation that we have from our other teammates really helps us,” Marshall said of the success that the pair have had. “We may not be running the same event, but we are always there cheering each other on. I know that’s a lot of motivation for us.”
“I really did not know that I was going to be a runner when I moved here,” Marshall added. “It’s been a really good fit for me though, and I love cross country. We have such a close bond with our coaches, too. Our team is really close, and that’s what I love the most about running.”
However, with three months still to go in their high school careers, Conley and Horner say that their success is only beginning thanks to an enhanced level of focus that the pair have shown throughout the offseason leading up to their senior year, as well as during it.
“There’s been a switch that has been turned,” Conley said. “They have become true leaders, whereas before, I don’t think they realized what they were capable of doing. They’ve turned into true leaders, and it’s fun seeing that in young kids as they grow. Every time they run, they’re giggling and they’re happy.”
“They knew that Shawnee State was looking at them, and I believe that lit a little fire under each of them,” Horner said. “They’ve done quite well all winter long and are serving as leaders for the rest of the kids by working out and encouraging them in workouts. It’s an unbelievable feat, and it couldn’t happen to two better girls.”
At Shawnee State, Blevins and Marshall will be joining a pair of programs that are as legitimate as they come in the cross country and track circles.
In nine out of the last 10 seasons, Shawnee State has finished 25th or better in the NAIA National Championships in the former sport — which just so happens to be the favorite sport for each of the pair. In each of the last five seasons, the Bears have finished in the 18th position or higher — including a program-best ninth-place outing in 2016. Shawnee State also began indoor track and field competition in 2017 in addition to offering the sport in its outdoor form.
“Eric’s as good as a coach as we’ve got in the state, and he’s recognizing their talents, which is wonderful,” Conley said. “These girls are so humble. You would never believe that they are even high school athletes, much less athletes who are going onto the collegiate level. They don’t beat their chest. They’re just good kids and very humble.”
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Horner said. “(SSU) is a top-notch program. It’s breathtaking to know that two of our girls are going to get that opportunity to go run for one of the best coaches in the country.”
However, the pair — who each have grade point averages hovering around a 3.5 and are already planning for future careers in the education field — are just the latest examples of excellence for a program that is beginning to dovetail its high school successes with student-athletes who are ready for college on both sides of the coin.
“It lets us know that what we’re doing is right,” Conley said. “The training is right when you’re getting four girls to reach that caliber in a matter of two years. That’s impressive. That tells us that we’re doing it right and that the members of our cross country and track programs are doing it right because they’re listening. These girls are very involved in their community, they’re National Honor Society members, they’re valedictorians, they’re salutatorians, and they’re athletes. That’s a lot to carry around.”
“You can’t explain the feeling,” Blevins said of the signing. “You just feel like all of the work, and everything that you worked for, has paid off at the end.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT