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Nike Outdoor Nationals
June 18-20, 2009 at Greensboro NC
DyeStat on-site

Boys Shot Put
By Dave Devine

A Clash of Titans
The high school ranks had never seen this many 70-footers in a single shot ring

by Dave Devine, DyeStat/ESPN RISE senior editor

  The four 70-footers from 2009, (l-r) Hayden Baillio, Nick Vena, Mason Finley, Stephen Saenz
  Photo by Vic Sailer
Colorado track star Mason Finley doesn’t like to watch other throwers when he’s enveloped in the heat of competition.

“I need to get in my own zone,” he said last Saturday. “Once I start watching other throwers, I start trying to do what they do, and making mistakes because I’m not used to the way they do it.”

Nick Vena, sophomore record holder in the shot put and the best ever from New Jersey, has the same dialed-in approach.

“I don’t follow anyone else,” he said. “I set goals for myself and try to do my best, because if I pay attention to their numbers, I throw myself off.”

While Finley and Vena—both highly-ranked participants— may not have been watching Saturday’s shot put showdown at the 2009 Nike Outdoor Nationals, nearly everyone else was.  Billed as the deepest high school boys shot competition in history, the first time even two 70-foot throwers had met face to face, much less the four on hand in Greensboro, the NON headliner was the rare event that managed to live up to its billing.

The elite section of the NON boys shot put featured two flights of throwers.  The opening flight of lower-seeded putters was littered with weightmen who would win gold in many state meets around the country, but it nonetheless served as an undercard for the heavyweight bout looming at the margins of the throwing circle.

Well before the competition got underway, the temporary stands erected alongside the sector began filling with knowledgeable track fans aware of the spectacle about to unfold.  Tucked in the shadows behind the stadium scoreboard, the shot put ring was typical of venues for track and field’s throwers: set out of sight and off to the side.  But the mere presence of this historic group of athletes—US#1 Nick Vena (72-08.00 PR), Stephen Saenz TX (72-06.50 PR), Hayden Baillio TX (72-02.25 PR) and Mason Finley CO (71-03.25 PR)—placed the event front and center, drawing hoards to a portion of the track which typically gathers a smattering of fans.

“This was the coolest thing I think I’ve ever been to,” Finley said afterward. “In Colorado, there’s usually not anyone very close to me, and then to come here and there’s three guys ahead of me.”

The talent ran deep in the loaded second flight of throwers.  After warm-ups were completed, all eleven were introduced in a lengthy ceremony which placed an exclamation point on the quality of the field.

Saenz sends one deep

  Texan Stephen Saenz launches the shot - Photo by John Nepolitan
As the throwing got started, the crowd seemed to angle forward with each new contestant entering the ring, eager for the first bomb to land out near the final sector arc, some 73 feet from the toe board.

“You felt the energy,” Saenz said. “You got all amped up and the adrenaline flowing.”

The first round of the three-attempt prelim resembled the early minutes of a prize fight, more feeling-out process than attempted knockout punch, as the big four produced a series of marks that was, for them, rather pedestrian: 66-9 for Saenz, 60-0 for Vena, 65-11 for Baillio and 64-11 for Finley.  If anyone appeared uncomfortable in the early-going it was the left-handed sophomore Vena, whose puts—even during warm-ups—were dropping far to the left of the sector.

It didn’t take long for Saenz to draw first blood.  Throwing first in the second round, he spun the shot all the way out to 70-10.75, eliciting an audible gasp from the bleachers.  And just like that, the competition had its first 70-foot mark.  None of Saenz’ competitors could answer through the rest of the round, though Vena improved to 69-11 and Baillio had an agonizingly long foul as he fought to stay behind the board.  Finley fouled too, and when Saenz kicked off round three with another monster—71-6 this time—he was securely in the driver’s seat.

The Texan’s technique certainly stood out from the other top competitors.  While Vena stamped from the front of the ring to the back before settling into his crouch, and Finley spent long moments rolling the ball against the crook of his chalked neck seeking the perfect fit, and Baillio gathered himself in a deep crouch before each spin, Saenz barely paused at all before launching into his wickedly quick rotation.

“The longer I stay in the ring the more nervous I get,” he explained after the competition. “So now I go in the ring and do what I have to do to get it done.  I don’t go in there and parade around the ring, I just throw really quick because I don’t want to start thinking about stuff.  Otherwise, you start thinking, ‘What if I do this wrong, what if I do that wrong?’”

Finley answers

Through three opening rounds, Saenz was doing almost nothing wrong.  His 71-6 seemed destined to hold up through the third round, even though Vena joined him in the 70-foot stratosphere with a 70-7 put which was easily his best put, technically, of the prelims. 

  Mason Finley prepares to take the lead - Photo by John Nepolitan
However, when Finley took the circle for his last qualifying toss, he sent one to the cheap seats.  Following a path straight up the middle, the 12-pound ball tracked a parabolic trajectory all the way out to 71-08.75—two inches further than Saenz managed moments earlier.  The typically reserved Finley thrust a chalky fist in the air as the crowd erupted in appreciation of the now-seesaw battle.

“I was just trying to throw to get in the finals,” Finley said. “I was just doing all the moves right and it just went out there.”

In the finals, which afforded the qualifiers three attempts to improve, Vena continued to drift left on his throws, landing his puts between 66 and 69 feet; Baillio found his groove and reached 68-00.50 on his second throw before fouling a desperate last-throw effort; and Saenz put the finishing touches the best series of the competition—and of his life—with two more throws over 70 feet for a total of four puts past the elusive barrier.  None of those throws, which would have won every Nike Outdoor National meet prior to this one, was good enough to advance past Finley.

The big Colorado senior, afforded the privilege of throwing last since he led coming from the prelims, had fouled his first throw of the finals and then reached 67-3 on his second before taking the ring for his last attempt with nothing to lose. The competition was already his.  He responded with one more 70-footer, reaching 70-11 for a total of seven 70-foot marks between Vena, Saenz and Finley.

“It's awesome,” the soft-spoken Finley said of adding the shot put gold to the discus title he’d earned Friday. “I can't even describe to you how cool it is.”

Saenz, who’d placed second to Finley in that discus competition with a clutch final throw that left him elated, was less excited to finish runner-up in the shot.

“I don’t mind getting second in the discus to Mason Finley, the national record holder,” he said. “So I was super excited yesterday, and I tried to carry that excitement over to today… I felt really solid, but Mason just got that one throw, and you know, it happens.  Still, to lose it by two inches?  When you lose by a smaller margin you definitely feel more pain, you know?”

Vena, the national leader heading into the meet, emerged with that distinction intact, but found himself third in an event that lived up to the billing.

“I think my performance could have been a whole lot better,” he reflected. “I wasn’t particularly happy with it…This is probably the best competition I’ve had all season, except for National indoors.  It was tough…it was a completely different setting.”

As fans emptied the makeshift grandstand and returned to follow the action on the adjacent track, several were still shaking their heads at the collision of talent they’d just witnessed.  You’d hard-pressed to find a more electric atmosphere to contest the shot put at the high school level.