"Honestly, I didn't think I'd go to school outside of Washington," said Bianchini, a standout distance runner at Glacier Peak High School before her graduation last spring. "I've really been a homebody all my life. ... My dad always said I'd go to the University of Snohomish."
But that was before Bianchini heard about Lipscomb University, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn. Lipscomb has strong cross country and track programs that are, ironically enough, coached by another Snohomish County product, Bill Taylor, a 1987 graduate of Lake Stevens High School.
So Bianchini made a recruiting visit to Lipscomb last January, "and I just totally fell in love with the campus and the team. The coaches are awesome and there's a strong Christian environment, which was really attractive to me.
"There was," she went on, speaking by telephone from Nashville, "something really special about Lipscomb. It felt like a family from the minute I stepped off the plane on my visit. They wanted me to be here, and I felt like if I didn't come here I'd be missing out on something."
Minna Fields, a 2011 graduate of Stanwood High School had a similar experience when she visited Lipscomb. "By the time I left," she said, "I felt it was where I was supposed to be. I really couldn't see myself going anywhere else."
Likewise, 2012 Arlington High School graduate Andrew Bosket, who came on a visit and decided Lipscomb was "the perfect place."
Other state high school grads evidently agree. Of the 53 athletes on Lipscomb's men's and women's cross country teams, eight are from Washington, as are Taylor and assistant coach Luke Syverson, who is originally from Kennewick and is a former track athlete at Washington State University.
Taylor, who is in his seventh season as head coach of the cross country and track programs, acknowledges that "we've done well (recruiting) out of Washington." But he also insists that "I don't recruit out of Washington more than I recruit out of any other state. The recruits we've gotten from there have been because they got our information.
"None of it is because of connections I have (back in Washington)," he added. "(The athletes) learned about us on their own. And with a kid that fits our culture, this (university) stands out."
Lipscomb's culture is one of high academics and what Taylor calls an "intentional Christian" atmosphere. That is, a Christian emphasis that is much more than name only. Students attend required chapels twice a week and also take mandatory Bible-based classes. Fields, for example, has a class this term called "Marriage in the Christian Home."
"There's no requirement that you have to be a Christian to come to Lipscomb," Taylor said. "But somebody coming here also needs to understand the environment and they need to understand the culture."
During the upcoming winter break, Taylor will take many of his cross country and track athletes on a mission trip for the fifth consecutive year, this time to Jamaica.
But if those aspects are a big part of Lipscomb's appeal, so is the quality of Taylor's programs. The women's cross country team, which is chasing a third straight Atlantic Sun Conference championship, is ranked fourth in the NCAA Division I South Region, which includes the states of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia. Lipscomb trails only Florida State, Vanderbilt and Florida, and is ahead of several schools from the prestigious Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences.
The men's program, meanwhile, is ranked sixth in the same regional poll and is bidding for its first conference title.
There are, of course, issues for athletes going to out-of-state private schools. Foremost is cost, which at Lipscomb comes to around $25,000 for annual tuition, and $37,000 when fees for room and board are included. The good news is, full and partial scholarships are available to help mitigate those expenses.
Another concern is geographic distance, which can be daunting for students and parents alike. Bianchini, Fields and Bosket all expect to be home for Christmas, but that might be the only time they return during this school year.
As an incoming freshman, "the hardest part was saying goodbye (to family and friends)," Bianchini said. "But the team keeps a pretty rigorous schedule, so I really haven't had much time to miss being at home."
"It's hard, but you also create bonds with people when you're going to a place where you know almost no one," said Bosket, a sophomore. "It's actually kind of a blessing. You're put out on your own, so it's a time to really grow up. And if you're mature enough to handle that, it's a healthy transition."
Even being "thousands of miles away from home, I really never got homesick," said Fields, a junior. "There might have been a day or two my freshman year, but I always felt so comfortable here that it was never really an issue.
"And since a lot of people on team are from out of state, we're all in the same position," she said. "Everybody's like family."
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