Featured Story

Constructing a throwing juggernaut

By Jacob Knabel on Jun. 1, 2016 in Track & Field

Ed McLaughlin once told Liz King not to worry about team national championship award ceremonies. “I don’t know if it’s possible at Concordia,” McLaughlin told her. It wasn’t so much pessimism as it was McLaughlin simply wanting to be realistic and tell her straight.

But reality is so much sweeter for Concordia University track and field and its vaunted group of throwers. Eight individual national titles and two team national championship banners later and the Bulldogs have proven capable of reaching the highest of highs. What seemed like a preposterous fairytale just a few years ago has been brought to life – for reals. “I can’t really explain what happened,” McLaughlin said following the latest team title.

So how did they do it? There have been some breaks for sure. No one will forget how the Concordia men eked out the 2015 outdoor national title thanks in part to a pulled hamstrung by an Indiana Tech runner on the final event of the meet. But there’s more to it than sheer luck.

The Bulldogs have built a monster in the form of perhaps the greatest collection of throwers the NAIA has ever seen. Hyperbolic? The numbers say no. Case in point: the 2016 outdoor national championships. Concordia traveled a group of 16 throwers to the big stage and came away with two national titlists, four national runner-up finishers, 20 total All-America plaques and a combined 110 team points in powering a team national championship and team second-place trophy.

“It’s amazing what they’ve done,” said 24-year head coach Kregg Einspahr. “Coach McLaughlin’s done a tremendous job with that group. We’ve always tried to support whatever areas we thought we could make big inroads with. Coach McLaughlin is a great teacher and those are really hard workers that love to throw. You see them out there working on their own a lot and putting the work in. They’re motivated and they just love throwing.”

The Bulldogs did not win a team conference championship in 2016, but stars like King and Zach Lurz, a three-time shot put national champion, made them well-equipped for a national meet. For comparison, conference champion and arch nemesis Doane brought 40 athletes to the outdoor championships and still managed 61 fewer combined team points than Concordia. King and Lurz both put up 18 points all by themselves.

Trust us, we can go on and on about a crew that the “Thrower’s Page” ranked second best in the NAIA in 2014, then No. 1 in 2015 and almost assuredly No. 1 again in 2016. Concordia throwers were rated No. 27 nationally among all levels of collegiate competition in 2015. The numbers and the rankings are staggering, but even McLaughlin marveled at the 66 team points amassed by female throwers at the 2016 outdoor championships.

“The girls talked about this last year. They wanted this,” McLaughlin said immediately after the championship meet. “They all showed up and scored amazingly well. The girl throwers scored 66 points. That’s just ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it.”

So Concordia throwers are good, really good. But how did they get THIS good? The conversation begins with McLaughlin, a 1998 Concordia graduate and former GPAC champion thrower himself. He’s a technician, a teacher and a developer of strong bonds.

A native of Billings, Mont., King entered college already possessing a knack for throwing the javelin, an event she claimed four GPAC titles in during her impressive career. But the hammer throw was different. She doesn’t shy away from admitting that the event is not her favorite and at 5-foot-7, King is at a size disadvantage compared to most of her competitors. It took her attention to McLaughlin’s teaching to make her ascent to national champion hammer thrower a reality.

“I still just don’t like it,” King joked after winning the hammer throw title. “All that credit is to Ed. I’m not the biggest girl. I’m not the tallest. I’m not the widest. I’m not the heaviest. I had to focus on technique and technique is all Coach.”

McLaughlin has successfully coached throwers even since helping assist former primary Bulldog throws coach Carter Bull while still a fifth-year senior at Concordia. After graduating, McLaughlin was asked by Einspahr to continue working with the throws group. There were some good competitors in those early years, such as Lane McDuffee, a star in the shot put and discus at the beginning of the millennium. But it was nothing like it is now.

So what changed? For starters, McLaughlin was limited in the amount of time he could spend with his athletes while working his full-time gig in special needs for Lincoln Public Schools. McLaughlin’s elevation to full-time assistant coach occurred about the same time as Concordia completed its sparkling new indoor track facility in 2009 as part of the Walz Human Performance Complex. These two developments were major breakthroughs for the throws program.

Now McLaughlin had more time for recruiting and more time to fine-tune his athletes during the day. The metamorphosis of the throwing program from national power to national best really started with the 2012-13 season. The freshmen that year included Cody Boellstorff, Zach Lurz and Josh Slechta on the men’s side and Kattie Cleveland, Stephanie Coley, Liz King and Nicole Perry on the women’s side (Boellstorff and Lurz will return in 2016-17). Collectively, those individuals have produced an other worldly 43 All-America awards and eight individual national titles.

“This class of seniors is definitely a special one,” McLaughlin said. “When you look back you felt like some great things could happen if everything goes the way it should go, if you avoid injuries and keep everyone together. This senior class put it all together. Kattie is a pretty special thrower and she kind of gets lost. It’s an amazing group, but you could never plan for what happened. I never thought the girls could do what they did over the weekend.”

McLaughlin guided a strong bunch of throwers even before the arrival of the likes of King and Lurz, but the veteran throws coach has noticed a key difference about this unprecedented group that has obliterated the competition over the past two years. They like each other, a lot. The national championship meet was like practice with each Bulldog hollering support for one another as they approached the ring. Dead silence greeted many throwers at the national championships. Then someone with “Concordia” written across the shirt surfaced and the cheers and chants grew loud.

“Honestly it probably won’t be the actual throwing part of it,” Coley said when asked what she’ll remember most fondly about her career. “It will be how I grew closer to my teammates and the personalities that came together. It’s a really strong community and that’s why I loved it so much.”

While answering questions about his national title in the shot put, Lurz had to ward off playful teammates who gave him wet willies, jumped on him and threw each other to the turf in the background. It’s further evidence that Concordia has done more than just stockpile talented throwers. It’s built a team, one that pushes its members to be great through the messaging of an expert teacher who takes joy in personal records put up by not just his best athletes, but also those who may never qualify for nationals. “The biggest difference right now (in our success) is the team atmosphere. We haven’t always had that,” McLaughlin said. “We have athletes who want to be good together.”

King is a prime example of this quality. Of course she’s proud of the individual national and conference titles, but the team title was the real treat. She did not accept or believe that it couldn’t be done. She and the so-good-it-can’t-really-be-true group of throwers made McLaughlin look like a fool. Can’t win a team national title at Concordia? Pfffft. Said McLaughlin, “Liz was rubbing it in my face the whole way home.”