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By Collin Brooks
It was a tremendous day for the Daniel Boone athletics program, but East Tennessee State University benefited just as much, as three of the four Trailblazer athletes signed with the hometown school.
Runners Ben Varghese and Makayla Shaw, along with softball player Kristen Hall all made it official with ETSU, while runner Daniel Johnson signed with Lincoln Memorial University.
“It’s a bittersweet day because we are losing a lot,” Daniel Boone athletic director Danny Good said during the ceremony. “But ETSU and LMU are gaining a lot and we are excited for these four athletes.”
The long distance runner, who has broken two course records and three meet records that were once held by All-Americans and won the 3200 meter state championship in track last year, said that the deciding factor was having one of his best friends already at ETSU.
“No college can replicate my best friend Josh Routh,” Varghese said. “Josh, he is more than a friend, he is a brother. He was there for me during my junior year and really helped push me throughout my career.”
While no other school could provide that, Varghese said that the decision did come down between ETSU and Milligan, and he said he respects Milligan and their program immensely.
“Both (ETSU and Milligan) coaches have really good philosophies and they remind me of how my coaches train me,” Varghese said. “They understand the game and they understand that you have to do all the little things. And with both coaching staffs, they cared about me as a person first and then a runner and that wasn’t the case for a lot of the programs that recruited me.”
His coach, Len Jeffers, said that as a freshman Varghese was content on being 14th on the team and playing around with the junior varsity group. But a fire was lit under him at the end of his freshman season and he continued to get better every year.
“His faith, commitment and desire has helped to put him where he is now,” Jeffers said.
That was no more evident then when Varghese collapsed with 800 meters left in the cross country state championship meet in the fall. The senior was unable to finish the race, but Jeffers said he didn’t let that define him.
“Later that evening at Vanderbilt, he told Ray (Jones) and I, ‘Today does not define me. I am ready to go back to work,’” Jeffers said.
That is exactly what he has done. Jeffers wasn’t the only that was emotional during the ceremony, Varghese was a bit slow to speak when he came to thanking people.
“I want to thank the community of Gray and Northeast Tennessee,” he said. “I could have never gotten here without you all. I didn’t get here by myself, I didn’t get here by myself, that would be a dang lie. And I just want to tell you all that I love you.”
Shaw chose ETSU after other local colleges as well, shunning smaller schools for the Division I level.
“I love everything about ETSU and I am really excited about the athletics and academics,” she said. “I am excited about the challenges I am going to face and I hope that I am going to be really successful.”
She also mentioned that she is excited for the successful athletes that she is leaving behind at Boone and that she will be cheering for them from just down the road.
“They’re going to be really good,” she said. “We are going to have really good sprinters and distance.”
Hall is getting a full academic ride to ETSU and will be walking on the softball team. She said that she can thank her mother for her success in the classroom and her father for his sternness on the softball field.
“My mom has always said that it is student-athlete, not athlete-student, so she has always made me put the books first,” Hall said. “So I have always made sure to keep that up.”
Her ultimate decision came down to staying close to home, but she said she is excited with the opportunity that ETSU will present her.
“They did tell me that they didn’t have a true third baseman, but wherever they decide to put me, I will adapt,” Hall said.
Johnson was the outlier of the group signing with LMU, but he became the 28th signee for the Daniel Boone running program since 2009. He said the opportunity to go to a solid program like LMU was one that he could not pass up.
“LMU has everybody coming back and it is a really good program,” Johnson said.
He said he will start with 5K and 10K and study mathematics and education, with hopes of becoming a math teacher and high school coach.