A Washington runner is charting a new course.
Senior Claire Ayers, a standout on the Lady Jays track and cross country teams, has decided to run collegiately at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale for the Salukis.
Ayers heads east, but joins a list of runners from the program in recent years that have also signed with Division I programs, each who went west to further their running careers — Mikayla Reed, Cason Suggs and Anna Sullentrup (Mizzou) and Adam Gauzy (Wichita State).
“I really enjoyed the coach and the team and they had the degree and the major that I wanted to go into,” Ayers said. “The school has a strong science program.”
In her high school career, Ayers has earned three state medals in cross country and three in track.
As a freshman and sophomore, Ayers finished seventh in the state in cross country both seasons, leading to a highlight performance for the team during her sophomore season in the fall of 2016 where the Lady Jays finished third in the state in Class 4.
“That one was a tough race,” Ayers said. “We literally fought for every place in that one and it was really special. (Those teammates) are some of my favorite people and they really made me who I am today and that’s what I looked for in a team at college. SIU has a close team and that really helped me make the decision as well.”
After not making the cross country state podium during her junior season in 2017, Ayers triumphantly returned to the top 10 in the state in the event her senior year by placing ninth in the Class 4 state championship race last fall.
“Claire has been a superstar since she was a little kid,” Washington Head Coach Mike Olszowka said. “I’ve told many of the college coaches this and a lot of my friends in high school (coaching) know this — I think if we took every high school cross country runner in the state and put them on the basketball court, she’d probably be one the best basketball players. If we put them on the volleyball court, she’d be one of the best volleyball players. Anything she does, she’s going to be successful at. It’s not just that she’s a great runner — she’s a great all-around athlete.”
During the spring track season, Ayers had to watch from the stands at the state championships her sophomore year due to injury. However, she played a pivotal role in the Lady Jays finishing second overall in the state in Class 4 this past spring as a junior.
In the spring 2018 track championships, Ayers was a part of the Lady Jays’ state championship 3,200-meter relay team along with Mikayla Reed, Mia Reed and Morgan Holdmeyer. She also finished second overall in the 800-meter run and third in the 1,600-meter run individually.
Ayers still has this spring’s track season to further pad her already impressive resume of accomplishments at Washington before heading to Carbondale in the fall.
“I think she’s going to have a great (college) career,” Olszowka said. “She’s got a lot of upside to her still. She’s just super athletic and has a lot of speed. I think when she gets around more great athletes (and) better coaching, she’s really going to blossom.”
Among what Ayers can accomplish moving forward, Olszowka said he hopes she will be able to qualify to compete in the NCAA Championships and approach All-American status.
“SIU has a great coaching staff,” Olszowka said. “I’ve been talking to them and they are super excited. I think they feel that they may have gotten the steal of the year from the state of Missouri. Claire had a good cross country season and a good track season but still there wasn’t a lot of talk about her. They got the deal of the year and I think they truly believe it.”
SIU is coming off a 2017-18 outdoor track season where the women’s team tied for second place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Salukis’ women’s cross country team were seventh in the conference this past fall and finished 30th in the NCAA Midwest Regional.
“The team is super young and they’ve got a lot of goals and plans for the future and we’re all super excited to be on the team,” Ayers said of her new group of college teammates.
The Lady Jays’ spring track season is scheduled to begin on March 19 at Pacific.