Paul Stafford’s running career was nearly stopped before it got started. Prior to his sophomore season, Stafford sustained a hamstring injury that wiped out his sophomore season and any goal he had of running in college, especially at a Division I school, appeared to be a longshot.

The injury, however, didn’t stop him from being a top runner. It only delayed him.

Stafford came back strong his junior y ear and emerged as the dominant distance runner in the county and one of the top runners in the state. The work he put in to comeback so strong paid off as he signed with Florida State on Friday for cross country and track. He is believed to be the first male athlete from Lake Wales to sign with a D-I school for track.

“I was thinking about this on my run this morning,” he said on Friday. “I was like, man, if I don’t get hit by a car on this run, I made it. It’s such a surreal feeling. I’m just real thankful for it.”

FSU became interested in Stafford in September after he won in Jacksonville. FSU’s interest increased after Stafford won pre-state in Tallahassee in October.

Stafford, who also visited Florida and Lipscombe in Tennessee, committed to FSU on Feb. 18.

“After thinking about it, I know what’s best for me financially, athletically and academically and it’s just what I thought was best,” Stafford said. “The feel for it was right for me.”

Stafford has had a stellar career the past two cross country and track and field seasons. In cross country, he is a two-time Ledger Boys Athlete of the Year. He won two county, two district and two regional titles and finished second in the Class 2A state meet.

In track, he was equally strong. As a junior in the 1,600, he was first at the district meet, second at region meet and third at the state meet. In the 3,200, he was district and regional champion and fifth at state.

This season, he has won county and district titles in both events. He currently is ranked No. 1 in the state in 2A in the 1,600 and No. 3 in the 3,200. He is ranked No. 4 overall in the state in both events.

Stafford is the second Lake Wales track athlete to sign with an ACC school. Girls track standout Maiah Walker has already signed with North Carolina.

Lopez signs with Southeastern

Santa Fe Catholic offensive lineman Jon Lopez was considering an offer from out of state but chose to stay close to home and signed with Southeastern University.

“That was the plan, stay close to home, not too far from mom’s cooking,” he said. “This is a big deal. It’s great. No matter what division, it’s a blessing to play football and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

Lopez, who will play guard or center in college, has been with Santa Fe since his freshman season and was a starter on the 2015 squad that won the 2015 Sunshine State Athletic Conference championship. He was selected for the USA Football National Team and played in the International Bowl in Dallas this past January.

A member of the Santa Fe track team, Lopez, who also played two years of baseball for the Crimson Hawks, will compete in the district meet on Wednesday. He is ranked No. 1 in the state in the shot put in Class 1A and also competes in the discus.

Two Jenkins softball players go JuCo

Two George Jenkins softball players will continue their education and college careers in junior colleges. Pitcher Emily Cornelius is staying local and signed with Polk State where she’ll play for former Bartow coach Donna Byars. Catcher Madelyn Graham signed with State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.

Cornelius is the No. 2 pitcher for the Eagles but could start for many teams in the county. In her career, she is 6-2 with a 3.07 ERA.

Graham is one of the top catchers in the county. She is batting .333 with three home runs and a team-high 28 RBIs.