Four-time state champ will run cross-country, track for Tigers
A year of injuries, pain and doubt was erased for Erin Leonard last Friday when she signed to run cross-country and track at LSU.
This time last year, the Jones County runner was at the pinnacle of her young career.
She had just won her second consecutive Class 5A state cross-country title and was chosen to run for team Georgia in the Foot Locker South Regional, where she placed a respectable 22nd with a time of 18:18.
She held the school records in the 5K (17:30.47) for crosscountry and in the 1,600 meters (4:59.18) and 3,200 meters (10:45.10) in track. She had state championships in the 1,600 and 3,200 as a sophomore to go with the two cross-country titles won as a sophomore and junior.
Track coaches from major colleges all across the nation were calling and sending letters wanting her to commit to their programs.
But then, it seemed the dream was evaporating.
Injuries and other problems slowed her during track season last spring.
She still won region titles in the 3,200 and 1,600, and she finished second and third in those events in the state sectional. But she faltered in the state meet, finishing fifth in the 3,200 and 15th in the 1,600.
More injuries came as her senior year began this past fall, and she was able to run only a few races during crosscountry season. She finished third in the region meet but was only 23rd at state, her time of 21:00.27 more than 2¼ minutes slower than her winning time the previous year.
College coaches stopped calling. The scholarship offers from Division I schools that seemed certain a year ago never came.
Leonard feared she had missed her opportunity.
But one school did not back down. LSU’s Mark Rinker kept calling, and last Friday Leonard signed with the Tigers.
“I am so excited. I’m speechless. With all that has happened this year, I didn’t think I would make it,” she said. “So to get this chance is wonderful. All the glory goes to God.”
Jones County crosscountry coach Geoff Moore said he was especially pleased that it was Rinker who kept his faith in Leonard.
“His dad Dave was my coach when I was at Brevard and turned me into a good runner and changed my life,” said Moore, who went on to run at Clemson after being part of two national champion junior college teams at Brevard.
“I think Mark can do the same with Erin, and I am so thrilled she gets this chance.”
Rinker had been competing with coaches from other schools for Leonard, but she wasn’t sold on LSU before this past year.
“I didn’t think I would like it there,” she said. “But he convinced me to come visit, and I fell in love with the school. I can’t wait to go there.”
But Leonard, who said she plans to major in sports communications, said she has some unfinished business at Jones County first.
“I’m getting healthy and really want to have a strong track season here this spring.”
Moore said it wouldn’t be wise to bet against her.
“She’s a special runner. She works very hard and is very determined. The sky’s the limit for her if she stays healthy,” he said.
“She’s been tremendous for us here. She’s been in the top five for all classifications in cross-country for the last four years. She’s a nine-time region champion, two-time cross-country champion and also has the two state championships in track. She ran a 17:05 to win the Macon Labor Day Road Race two years ago, which is the third fastest time ever in that race.
“She has led our cross-country team to top 10 finishes all four years she’s been here. We have middle school and elementary school girls wanting to run and be on the team all because of her and what she has done.”
Jones County athletic director Barry Veal also said he was proud and happy for Leonard.
“She has a dedication you don’t see in many people, especially her age,” he said. “She has accomplished a lot. She has also been through some storms, but she has come through them and is still going. I am so happy for her to get this opportunity.”