The highlight reel of East Carolina’s indoor track season so far brings one point home: Athletes who are given the time to mentally and physically develop are rewarded with results.
Exhibit A is fifth-year senior Ryan Davis, a thrower who is currently ranked fourth in the nation in the 35-pound weight throw. Davis, a product of Pine Forest High in Fayetteville who is now pursuing graduate studies, redshirted his junior season because head coach Curt Kraft and his throwing coach David Price believed that one more year of training and competing independently would give him a peak senior year.
“We redshirted him last year with the expectation that he would be doing what he’s doing right now,” Kraft said. “We knew he was going to get bigger, faster, and stronger. We knew he could be one of the best in nation at the weight throw for indoor and the hammer throw for outdoor.”
Davis, who was named American Field Athlete-of-the-Week on Tuesday, certainly had moments last season when the redshirting decision was difficult, especially when his senior teammates who had come into the program with him left to go compete somewhere and he didn’t get to come help the team. But the extra year has enriched him as a competitor in all the ways his coaches hoped it would, he said, especially when it comes to his mental approach to competition.
“It was a really enlightening experience in terms of getting to know how I competed,” he said. “Now I have more of a way to focus on what I’m doing versus focusing on what everybody else has going on. I would say that it as just a complete change, mental and physical. It was very much needed. I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I did it.”
The indoor season is abbreviated, lasting just five weeks and culminating in the conference championship meet in Birmingham at the end of this month. But the Pirates have made the most of it so far, toppling three school records in two meets.
Two of the owners of those new records — and further evidence of the benefits of athletes who make the most of their time in their college program — are pole vaulter Sommer Knight and pentathlete Mackenzie Whitaker.
Knight topped her own school record last weekend at the Carolina Challenge in Columbia, SC, clearing 4.15 meters, and Davis also bested his own record in the weight throw, reaching a mark of 22.20 meters.
Whitaker’s milestone came the weekend before at Virginia Tech, where she amassed 3,834 points in the pentathlon, winning four out of the five events and finishing 259 points ahead of the second-place athlete.
As a freshman, Knight improved her jumping considerably, reaching a personal record that was ten inches higher than her best in high school. Then as a sophomore, she still jumped well, setting her first ECU record, but she struggled with confidence and mental consistency. This year, so far, with her eye on a breakout outdoor season, she has both parts working together, she said.
“I think most of my problem last year is I was putting too much pressure on myself,” she said. “I try to jump now for fun and remind myself that I’m doing it because I love it.”
Whitaker, who has competed both in the pentathlon and in the long jump in her career as a Pirate, credits her breakout to a focus on technique and fundamentals in her work with assistant coach Jeff Artis-Gray, who has helped her refine her strongest events, long jump and the 800-meter run, while giving her the tools to improve in the events where she has traditionally been weaker, like shot put and hurdles. Whitaker surprised herself at the Virginia Tech meet by clearing 5 feet, 5 inches or a personal best on the high jump, and across the board she feels more confident and more fundamentally sound.
WIth a goal of qualifying for indoor nationals, Whitaker only needs to improve her score by 100 points to get within range of the top 16 pentathletes in the nation. She is also working harder this year to guide and encourage the freshmen on the team, she said, because she remembers what it was like to be overwhelmed by the intensity of college competition in her early meets as a freshman. Leadership from veterans like Whitaker provides the backbone of a team that has already demonstrated remarkable talent and unity, and Kraft is thankful to have a front row seat to what comes next.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the kids right now,” Kraft said. “The leadership has been good, the culture has been good, the attitudes have been good, the enthusiasm has been good. It’s probably been one of the more enjoyable years.”