PITTSBORO — Next fall, the defending national champions are adding one of Northwood’s most decorated athletes.
After a storied high school career in both cross country and track & field for the Chargers, Northwood senior Caroline Murrell has announced her commitment to N.C. State, where she’ll run cross country for the Wolfpack — winners of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Cross Country National Championship a little less than a month ago — once she graduates in the spring.
“When I went on my official visit, I was really scared at first because I was like, ‘I’m about to go on an official visit and be around the best team in the country,’” Murrell told the News + Record on a Zoom call on Monday. “(I thought), ‘Are they going to be nice? Am I going to feel welcomed?’ And I definitely did. It was just like that team environment and it really felt like a family.
“The coaches really seemed to care about every athlete individually and didn’t just care about winning national titles and doing well,” Murrell added. “They cared a lot about the process and getting runners that can win national titles. That was really important to me.”
Murrell, who described her recruitment period as “a little stressful,” started reaching out to schools last January and before narrowing her choices to N.C. State, Furman and UNC-Charlotte.
She said she ended up making her decision “on a whim” last month.
“My gut was kind of like, ‘I think I want to go to N.C. State,’” she said. “It was really nice, and definitely a weight off of my shoulders, to make that decision.”
It’s only fitting that a championship athlete runs for a championship program. Over the last few years, Murrell has earned all sorts of accolades for her achievements as the Chargers’ top distance runner, both on the track and the cross country course.
She’s a regional champion, a conference champion, a Conference Runner of the Year, a two-time all-state selection, a four-time all-region selection and a four-time all-conference selection.
And that’s just in cross country.
In June, Murrell added “track state champion” to her growing resume after taking first place in the girls’ 3,200-meter run (10:51.83) at the 2021 NCHSAA Track & Field 3A State Championships at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
And while she concluded her high school cross country career this year without a state title on the course, she finished as a top-10 runner at the NCHSAA 3A Cross Country State Championships twice in the same calendar year (10th in January 2021 as a junior, 3rd in November 2021 as a senior).
“She just has an intangible … she has something that nobody else has,” Cameron Isenhour, the Chargers’ head cross country and track & field coach, told the News + Record on Monday. “I’ve been coaching for seven years and she’s just an athlete who gets it. She’s willing to do anything, whether it’s running at 6 in the morning to get a workout in, running on the weekends, running on vacation. She just has that will and desire to be great.”
Out of all the athletes at Northwood, Isenhour said, Murrell might just be the one that’s most dedicated to their craft.
Her success hasn’t come by happenstance.
While some of it may be raw talent and speed, a lot of it stems from the work she’s put into the sport — including her ongoing training, during which she strives to get better daily.
Murrell’s been running competitively since she was in 5th grade, when she ran club track for Triangle Champions Track Club in Durham.
As the years went by, Murrell improved as a runner and ended up competing in youth national championships with her club team in middle school, a major experience boost for someone at such a young age.
“I just think it was a really great way to introduce myself to the sport,” Murrell said, “because I just had really great teammates and really great coaches that made it a lot of fun.”
By the time she was in 8th grade, she said she got a little tired of “just running” and took a break to avoid burning herself out — a decision that helped her come back refreshed when she went out for Northwood’s cross country team her freshman year.
Since then, she’s set numerous personal records, improved on her skills year-to-year and added a plethora of records, accolades and achievements to her imaginary Wikipedia page.
This year, however, she took an otherworldly jump in both cross country and track, breaking down barriers and solidifying her legacy as a Northwood great.
“I definitely feel like I’ve made a lot of improvement over the past year,” Murrell said. “And I guess that’s just a testament to my hard work, but also the love I have for the sport.”
During the season, Murrell runs between 30 to 40 miles per week on her own time, working out two or three times each week, with “recovery runs” in between and a longer run on the weekend.
“(She) really understands how to make sacrifices,” Isenhour said, “which leads to excellence and exhibits really hard work and dedication to your craft.”
In January, Murrell will be entering her last semester as an active Northwood Charger.
She’s already done what she can to make the most of her last year in Pittsboro, including a recent trip to Huntsville, Alabama, with Isenhour and her Northwood teammates, where they competed in the Garmin Running Lane National Cross Country Championships.
In the women’s race, Murrell ran a 17:38.92, smashing her previous personal record by 14 seconds, which gave her the third-fastest time in N.C. — and No. 1 among 3A runners — this season.
“It was honestly an amazing experience, one of my most fun cross country trips,” Isenhour said. “It was just the most excitement I’ve seen on a cross country course … (it was) just history-making.”
“It was definitely fun, some good team bonding on the ride over there,” Murrell added. “It was definitely a good way to close out my senior cross country season. The part that was the most special for me was probably watching all of my other teammates run and PR because it just made me want to run and it was super cool for them.”
Throughout the winter, Murrell will be running indoor track with the Chargers before starting the outdoor track season in the spring with a chance to defend her 3,200-meter state title from last year.
“(Repeating as state champion) is definitely the goal,” Murrell said. “There’s one girl who’s pretty fast, but as long as I train smart and stay healthy and run smart, try my best and leave it all out there, it could be a good day. … She’s going to have to run really fast.”
Then, it’ll be time for Murrell to graduate and head on to Raleigh, where she plans to major in Psychology, minor in Spanish and run under 15-year head coach Laurie Henes, who was recently named the National Women’s Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) after winning the national title.
The Wolfpack’s title win came in Tallahassee, Florida, on Nov. 20, where the women’s team had five top-32 finishes, compiling 84 total points, to take the crown for the third time in program history.
That means Murrell will be walking into a program with a championship pedigree.
As a first-year student in 2022, Murrell said it’ll be unlikely that she’ll be placed on the national championship squad, but she’ll get there.
“Something that Coach Henes made really clear was that, ‘We don’t bring in fast girls and just run them really hard. It’s a process. We build people up, no one’s running their peak mileage at first,’” Murrell said. “I’m just excited to run with the team and run with a really strong group of girls, but also just meet new people and have the college experience.”
But for now, she remains a Charger — one of the most decorated athletes to put on a Northwood uniform in recent history.
Isenhour says he plans to sit back and enjoy the time he has left coaching her in her final indoor and outdoor track seasons.
“We’ve pretty much accomplished what we wanted to (together),” Isenhour said of he and Murrell. “We’ve set PRs in all of our events, we’ve rewritten the record books, we won a state title, we set a state record, we’re all-state. (She’s) obviously the most successful athlete that I’ve probably ever coached, so I’m just going to sit back and kind of take a backseat and watch her do her thing because it’s just beautiful to see.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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