By Denise Spann, Florida MileSplit Correspondent
Four years can be ample enough time to transform any career.
As a freshman, he placed in the top-20 at the 2A FHSAA Cross Country State Finals to rank in the state's top-100. Fast forward to his junior season and he's the 2A XC state champion and the state's No. 1 distance recruit with state leading marks in the mile to 5K.
But what undeniably put Montague on the map was his 4:10.62 1,600-meter season opener against some of Florida's top distance runners in late February.
"I never really thought that this was going to be possible," Montague explained looking back over his success. "Now after running 4:10, it's good but I know I definitely have a lot more... It's insane how far I've come, there's a lot of ups and downs with this sport, but I wouldn't change it for the world. And I think freshman year Gabe would be really proud."
Before his state leading and US No. 5 (now No.7) 1600m performance, the Satellite senior signed to Furman University over distance powerhouses like Georgetown, Syracuse and NC State.
However, weeks before committing, Montague wasn't considering the seven-time SoCon conference champions. But when assistant coach Chris Neal and the Paladins connected with him during the latter half of his recruiting process -- something clicked.
"At the time, I was like I probably won't be going there because I already established relationships with all the other coaches, but [Furman] did a really good job at recruiting me," the 2A state champion said. "They were the best recruiters from the schools I was looking at."
What made the senior go all-in? An eye-opening road trip to unofficially visit campus.
"Furman had a really nice campus, I got to see some of the guys there and the town was just beautiful," Montague said. "I think I just fell in love with the place when we visited. Obviously, all the other schools were really great too, but Furman just had that thing about it, I just knew I could do really well there."
Montague's commitment was much different than the signees before him. Normally when an athlete commits, it's over the phone, but with Zoom normalized throughout the process, Neal and head coach Robert Gary were able to witness the moment face-to-face.
"His dad's in tears and Gabe's so excited, it really was one of the best commitment moments we've had since coming to Furman and really that I've had in my 20 years of college coaching," Neal remembered. "Being able to see how excited the kid is as they're committing in front of you, seeing what it means to the parents for their child to get a scholarship to the school they really wanted to go to. It was all really fun to see."
With personal bests of 1:55.69 (800m), 4:10.62 (1600m), 4:17.45 (in. Mile), 9:06.55 (3200m) and 14:47.40 (5K), Montague's hard work during the pandemic was very evident to Neal.
"You could really tell who was going to be more successful at the college level by how they handled this pandemic," he said. "Gabe really used the time to get fitter, stronger and ready for whenever things did open back up... When you don't know what's coming but you stay ready, I think it shows how dialed in you are in this sport."
Neal believes that Montague can make an impact at the conference level immediately, possibly helping the Paladins win their eighth consecutive cross country title.
And while looking ahead, the assistant coach sees Montague being successful at both ends of the distance spectrum.
"I think eventually he'll be more of a mile, 5K type of runner and be able to be really good at both," Neal said. "...He reminds me a little bit of Cameron Ponder as far as the range he has. Cameron is one of the guys that's run all the way to 1:53, 4:04, 8:56 and I can see Gabe's times being like that at the end of the season."
The Satellite senior feels he can trust the training of Neal and Gary to help him meet these expectations.
"It just seems like they're building something really special over there that I want to be a part of," the senior said. "I think they're really methodical about their training and when you look at past performances, they're up there in the rankings and they know how to run fast when it's needed. Just the past performances and the training plan they've shown me won me over too - they're really smart."
Furman's young team was also a part of the draw for Montague.
Currently, two-thirds of the team are freshmen and sophomores, which will allow him to develop with a consistent group versus continuously losing vital training partners year after year, just like his current team at Satellite.
"I've been so blessed over the years to be able to have a team that can run workouts with me. I'm not a lone wolf out there, there's a lot of really fast guys at Satellite. I'm glad I'm transitioning to a school that's going to be the same...I'm just super excited and stoked to run with these [Furman] guys daily. The workouts are going to be so much fun, and the racing is going to be fun as well."
In the eyes of Neal, Montague and his incoming teammates: Wade Hampton's Casey Burr, Newbury Park's Nicholas Goldstein, Loudoun Valley's Matthew Smith, Stillwater's Ethan Vargas and Boerne Champion's Foster Wilfong are the perfect additions for national caliber success.
"We recruited Gabe because our big hope for him and his class is to mix in with this nice young contingent we have," he said. "We're really hoping that that group becomes a team that's top-10 at the national meet several years in a row in cross country. We feel that his class has what we need, especially when you mix it with the development of some of the other guys we have in this program."
Montague's commitment to the Paladins follows a current trend we're seeing in recruiting - blue-chip recruits taking their talents to smaller schools over Power Five conference giants.
Neal credits these choices to athletes taking true ownership of their recruiting process.
"[Athletes are] hopping in their cars, driving up, spending their own money to go see schools they were very serious about," Neal explained. "I think one thing this year did was take away a lot of wasted time in recruiting and got everybody focused on what was important and finding a good fit for them."
And Montague is confident in his pick of Furman.
"I'm so blessed to have an opportunity to join this team and try to improve on previous records or rankings that they stand by today," he said. "I truly think it's going to be the right place for me. What they're doing over there is something special and I'm really excited to go and give it my best shot."