WARRENTON — When North Carolina State women’s cross country head coach Laurie Henes said the name Jenny Simpson, Jill Starliper started crying.
Henes had just given her daughter, Marlee Starliper, one of the highest compliments a high school distance runner could hear.
It was just one of several reasons why Starliper, arguably the greatest distance runner in Mid-Penn history and one of the best Pennsylvania has ever seen at the high school level, will run with the Wolfpack for the next four years after she announced her commitment Sunday evening at her home.
“[Cross country coordinator Rollie Geiger] starts out the meeting, he goes, ‘You’re special,’” said Jay Starliper, Marlee’s father, of the official recruiting visit that locked in Starliper’s decision. “And he goes, ‘You remind me and Laurie of somebody we almost recruited here and we lost at the very end.’ And he looks over at Laurie. … And Laurie goes, ‘You totally remind us of Jenny Simpson.’ And they’re like, ‘We think you have her same running ability, but more importantly you have her exact personality, too, that she had.’”
That’s when Jill began crying, Jay said.
Simpson picked Colorado over NC State and went on to set numerous NCAA middle distance and steeplechase records from 2006-09. She has run in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics (winning bronze in Rio in the 1,500) as a middle distance and steeplechase runner, held the American 3,000-meter steeplechase record for a time, and won the 1,500 gold at the 2011 World Championships.
The Starlipers hosted a small get-together of around 30 friends, family and media at their home Sunday evening, where the younger of two daughters announced her choice between NC State, Northern Arizona University and Oregon after the family spent several minutes thanking teachers, coaches, teammates and extended family.
The Northern senior unveiled her choice — she chose the Wolfpack over more traditional national running powers Oregon and Northern Arizona University — by unzipping a sweatshirt in her living room to reveal an NC State long-sleeve shirt with her parents, Jill and Jay, standing right next to her.
And here's the pick. Northern's two-time PIAA cross country champion Marlee Starliper is going on a full scholarship to ... pic.twitter.com/dcyChWegI3— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) October 20, 2019
“I definitely wasn’t afraid to go out west,” she said. “But the biggest thing for me was wherever I was happiest was where I wanted to go.”
In the end, it came down to feeling like she’d have a family environment to spend four years in.
“The biggest thing that stood out about NC State was just the connection that I had with the team,” Starliper said. “And the coaches, too, you just get that family feel there. It was really tough, because with NAU, it was kind of like my dream to go there. … But I just knew that I had to take advantage of these amazing people that I would have just this amazing time with.”
Starliper already had a connection with fellow Pennsylvanian Savannah Shaw, who Starliper raced against in high school for two years before Shaw joined the Wolfpack in 2018.
“It was just so great already having a friend there,” Starliper said.
Starliper was offered a rare full-ride athletic scholarship. Each NCAA Division I women’s cross country and track and field program has 18 full scholarships to hand out. But Jay said NC State didn’t hesitate to offer a full scholarship.
“[The coaches were] like, ‘This is the easiest business decision we’ve ever made,’” he said. “They were the only ones that were just full athletic, right off the bat.”
“Honestly, it’s just such a blessing to my family,” Marlee said. “If I would’ve looked at where I started with running and everywhere that it’s taken me to now, up to this point, it’s just such a blessing that I don’t have to pay for college.”
NC State was a bit of an underdog in the race to grab one of the nation’s top runners. They were late recruiting her and are not considered a traditional power in the sport, but Starliper gave them a shot with an unofficial visit that sparked further interest. She agonized over the past week, even after picking the school, because she had grown close to NAU, the first school to call her more than a year ago.
“Going into it, [the Wolfpack] were probably bottom of my list,” said Starliper, who, along with Jay, praised the way NAU coaches handled the news. “But then I just remember at the end of the visit, the visit’s technically over, but I’m going to bed for my last night there in North Carolina, and this thought just popped in my head, ‘Wow, this was actually an awesome time here.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, I could really see myself here.’”
Starliper is the No. 4 recruit by MileSplit50 in the Class of 2020. Her commitment adds to what was already shaping up to be a mammoth haul by the Wolfpack, who are No. 9 in the Oct. 8 rankings from the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. According to MileSplit, Starliper is set to join Alyssa Hendrix (Riverview High School, Florida), Claire Walters (Fayetteville-Manlius High School, New York), Jenna Schulz (Liverpool, New York) and another Keystone State native, Gionna Quarzo
“Seeing all the girls who just committed along with me, I’m just like, ‘Oh my word. We could. What if we could win NCAA’s next year?’” said Starliper, who will major in creative writing with the hopes of becoming a writer one day, hopefully after a long and successful pro career running. “It’s hard to know what’s gonna happen, but I definitely could see that being a very realistic goal in the near future.”
The Northern sensation was one of the most highly coveted runners in the country the past few years. And there's no questioning why, her accolades are astounding:
- One of the Top 10 fastest times in high school girls history with a 16:30 in September at the Lebanon Valley Dutchmen Invitational. That time is also the fastest in Pennsylvania history, breaking legendary Mechanicsburg runner Lois Bromer's time by 13 seconds.
- Two PIAA individual cross country golds, two District 3 championships.
- One PIAA 3200 gold in 2018, also claiming bronze in the 1600 in a grueling distance double.
- Silver at the Pan American U20 Track & Field Championships this summer. Also won the U20 U.S. outdoor championship in the 3K.
- Won the mile at the Millrose Games and set the meet record.
- Won the New Balance National Outdoor Championships mile.
- Gold at the Foot Locker Regionals, then 13th at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships.
- Numerous course and race records.
In two weeks Starliper will try to become just the sixth runner, and the first Mid-Penn athlete, to win three state titles, boys or girls. She is currently tied with Neely Spence, the Olympic hopeful and standout Shippensburg High School and Shippensburg University runner, with two state golds.
Vincentian Academy's Marianne Abdalah is the only girl to win three straight state titles — she did so her freshman through junior year from 2013-15 in Class 1A. Upper Dublin's Kim Gallagher won three over four years from 1978-81 in Class 3A, and Liberty's Janelle Thomas did the same thing from 1992-95. On the boys side, Southmoreland's Chris Dugan won three straight 2A titles from 94-96, as did Manheim Townships Craig Miller in 3A from 2003-05.
The District 3 championships are Saturday at Big Spring High School; Starliper is the two-time defending Class 2A champion there. The PIAA championships are Nov. 2 at Hershey's Parkview Course.
Email Jake Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520