TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The January arrival of two instant-impact international athletes and the signature of the No. 1 high school senior 100-meter dash sprinter in the United States, highlight a 12-deep, early signing class for the Florida State track & field program.
FSU coach Bob Braman and his staff have assembled a class that should both enhance the short- and long-term national championship viability of the men’s team, while strengthening the fast-improving women’s distance group which is coming off its first NCAA Championship Cross Country appearance in four seasons.
“All of the coaches worked really, really hard,” Braman said. “We knew this class was critical. On one hand it is critical to trying to have a shot to win this track season, but the big picture is this class is critical because we have some older athletes.”
The Seminoles will have to replace elite national level seniors Andre Ewers and Darryl Haraway in the sprints, and Armani Wallace and Christoff Bryan in the jumps.
“Mission one was plug-in athletes,” Braman said, referring to the type of athletes who can come in and immediately score at the national level. “We were going to go big, or we were going to wait…I couldn’t have asked for a better result than what we got, because we did want to go older, plug-in guys first, but also lay down a nice base.”
French triple jumper Martin Lamou and Moroccan distance standout Zouhair Talbi boast lifetime-bests that not only exceed current Florida State school records – held by future Olympians – but were also superior to the winning marks at the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Lamou, who arrives as a redshirt freshman, was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2018 among under-20 athletes in the indoor triple jump (16.89 meters/55-5) and No. 2 outdoors (16.76m/55-0). His recorded his lifetime-best outdoors (16.97m/55-8.5) on his way to gold at the 2017 European Junior championships, which exceeds the 16.79m leap for Texas A&M’s Tahar Triki for the 2018 NCAA Outdoor title. It’s also well beyond Rafeeq Curry’s FSU record jump of 16.70. Curry represented the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Talbi, who will be a redshirt junior on the track this season, owns personal-bests of 13:29.06 and 28:22.58 in the 5000- and 10,000-meter runs, respectively. Not only are they superior to the school records Ciaran O’Lionaird (13:33.64) and Andrew Lemoncello (28:28.04), but also better the NCAA Championship winning times of Stanford’s Sean McGorty (13:54.81) and Michigan’s Ben Flanagan (28:34.53) last season.
“The absolute immediate help is Martin and Zouhair,” Braman said. “Those guys are here because they want to be the best in the world and the NCAA is the best way to get there. They’ve learned that. They’re not young guys.
“These guys want to go to Olympic Games and want to be pros. They want to do elite things and be at the top of their sport. They’re older, battle-tested guys who know exactly what is going to happen. They know what they have to do to get there.”
Their arrival significantly enhances the NCAA title hopes of the Seminole men, who return the nation’s top 100-200 sprinter in Ewers, a title-contending 4×100 relay, the 2017 NCAA high jump champ in Bryan, All-American hurdler Trey Cunningham and a handful of other potential scorers. The Noles were 11th at the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
The Seminoles will await the arrival of the remaining 10 members of the class in the fall of 2019, but do so with great anticipation.
FSU went heavy on the men’s sprints and coach Ricky Argro delivered Miramar High School senior Taylor Banks, who ran 10.26 in the 100-meter dash as a junior on his way to the Great Southwest Classic title, and also added Brooks PR Invitational and AAU Club National crowns.
“Obviously, getting the No. 1 sprint guy in the country from right here in Florida was big,” Braman said.
The group also includes South African Tshenolo Lemao, who won gold in the 100 at the 2017 IAAF World U18 Championships to go along with silver in the 200. Versatile Fort Lauderdale Dillard senior Cameron Leiba was the Florida 3A state champion in the 200, runner-up in the 100 and also a finalist in the 400.
Rounding out the sprint group is Terrance Laird, who will compete at Hinds Community College this spring after earning Big Ten Indoor Freshman of the Year honors for Penn State last season. The Pennsylvania native owns a blistering 200-meter personal-best of 20.41 and earned second-team All-American honors indoors last season.
“We did everything we possibly could, there,” Braman said.
As a freshman at Coffeyville Community College, Blue Springs, Missouri native Darius Clark leaped 7.80 meters (25-7.5) to cap a four-win outdoor season with the NJCAA national long jump title.
“One area I personally wanted to get going again was we needed to get some middle distance guys,” Braman said, after grabbing Florida’s top two 800-meter runners in Joab Francois and Sukeil Foucha from Lake Brantley and Piper high schools, respectively. “It’s not our target area…but we’ve had a lot of success in the middle distance area with the Gibsons, Burtons and Teixieras, who are all Florida kids. We’re just blessed with two ultra-elite kids who, right here in the state, who want to be a part of that.”
Francois ranks fifth nationally among seniors with a 2018 personal-best of 1:51.00, with Foucha ranked sixth in 1:51.47. Both have tremendous physical tools and upsides.
Rounding out the men’s signees is Mount Dora Christian star Gabriel Curtis, who won his second Florida 1A state cross country title this past fall and also grabbed a bronze medal at the 2018 CARIFTA Games in the 5,000, representing the Bahamas.
“He’s one of these guys with enormous physical gifts,” Braman said. “You say, ‘Give me the big, tall, strong, fast, skinny guy.’ That’s Gabe.”
Rounding out the group are Ava Peeples and Rebecca Clark, who will immediately impact the women’s cross country and distance lineup. Peeples, who finished 19th at the Foot Locker National Championships, owns the No. 2 5000-meter cross country time among Texas high school seniors this past fall. Clark, Florida’s fastest senior, just claimed her third state cross country silver medal finish in the fall.
“Ava was truly the diamond in the rough, because she’s the sixth-best girl in Texas and Texas was the bomb; the best state, statistically, nationally,” Braman said of Peeples, who starred at Lake Highlands in the Dallas area. She acquitted herself really well with a top 20 at Foot Locker nationals and that’s her first time on that stage…
“In Florida you have three elite national girls, and then you have Rebecca Clark. She’s the next best.”
In summation, it’s quite a class.
“We’re excited about the whole thing,” Braman said. “We were able to cover all the areas, where the exception would be throws, but we’re looking at least one big January product for the throws. This is a group that could be a national champion-oriented type of team.”