Toby Schwarz doesn’t claim a track roster of blue-chip recruits at Whitworth College.
More likely he’ll welcome a blue-chip refugee – a vague distinction that just might apply this year to a couple of recent standouts, Jake DePell and Brandon Howell.
DePell hadn’t picked up a vaulting pole in the two years since winning back-to-back state championships at Freeman High School, but has improved his lifetime best in the last three meets. Howell, a sophomore from Clarkston, is undefeated at 800 meters this spring after missing the entire 2004 season recovering from knee surgery.
They’ll be in McMinnville, Ore., this weekend for the Northwest Conference championships with a Pirate’s typical outside chance and genuine appreciation for, well, just giving it a shot.
“I think when I walked in and met with Toby in the fall about coming out said it all for me,” said DePell. “He told me that this is a team thing, that we may not all be the best but that we’re going to try and have some fun doing it.”
He had transferred in from Wenatchee Valley College, where he played two years of basketball “but kind of burned out on it.” The school has no track program so that outlet hadn’t been available to him.
“In high school, it was the most fun sport – the one I was most relaxed with,” DePell said. “I wanted to get back to that.”
But he couldn’t have imagined the unbridled progress he’s made this spring. With a best of 14 feet, 1 inch from high school, DePell opened the season with a 13-71/4 clearance and has improved each meet. His 14-81/4 leap last weekend is third best in the NWC behind a couple of 15-footers.
He credits the daily training push from teammate Joel Omlin (a state champ at Quincy with a 15-3 best), increased strength, bigger poles – and a sense of urgency.
“I’ve only got this season and the next one,” he said. “I kind of regret that – you never know what you might have done.”
Howell, too, is an athlete on the rebound. He came to Whitworth in 2003 to compete in both football and track – a temporary notion.
“The last football practice of the year, we were doing goal-line routes,” he said. “There was a ball thrown behind me and as I reached for it, my foot got stuck and I spun around and you could hear the knee go ‘pop.’ “
He had ACL surgery that Christmas and once his rehabilitation was over, found himself running cross country instead of pass routes.
“I’m kind of afraid to hurt myself again,” he admitted. “I love to play (football) and I miss it but I don’t think I can do it anymore. Cutting isn’t the easiest thing to do – running in straight lines and circles is better.”
He’s getting better at it. Though he hasn’t equaled his high school bests of 48.8 in the 400 meters and 1:54.75 in the 800, he’s getting close. At the Pelluer Invitational two weeks ago, he mowed down a field that included Division I runners and the strong half-milers from Community Colleges of Spokane with a burst over the last 200, finishing in 1:55.67.
The challenge this week will be even more daunting. Willamette’s Nick Symmonds is the two-time defending national Division III champion at 800, with a best of 1:48.92.
“I look forward to that,” he said. “Going against guys like that, you find out what you’re made of.”
Washington State coach Rick Sloan didn’t accompany the Cougars’ contingent to the Mt. San Antonio College Relays last weekend, so he had to hear long distance about junior James McSwain’s hot sprinting.
“If I’d gotten a phone call saying James ran, oh, 10.37, I would have been thrilled,” Sloan said. “So they call and say, ‘10.19.’ I ask, ‘What was the wind?’ And they say, ‘Legal – 1.9.’ And I say, ‘How does this happen?’
“It’s just so far beyond what you might expect. It just goes to show me and everyone else how mental what we do is. Where your mind is and your level of expectation goes a long way in determining the outcome.”
Well, yes and no.
“This was not really expected,” McSwain said after the race. “I was taking it slow in practice at the beginning of the week after a sore hip at Berkeley and finally got to some speed workouts. When I got here I got sick with a cold, but this is the weather I like – not hot, but not cold either. My reaction time was good at the start but I felt my body positions weren’t too great. It worked so I’m not complaining.”
McSwain’s previous best in the 100 had been 10.50. He proved it wasn’t a fluke by lowering his 200 PR from 21.39 to 20.85 later that day. It was reminiscent of the drop former teammate Anson Henry made his senior year, when he won Pac-10 titles in the 100 and 200. Henry, running in the open division at Mt. SAC, was the first to congratulate McSwain after the race.
“Coach Mac (Mark Macdonald) has been saying, ‘This guy is really fast,’ ” Sloan said. “He just proved it.”
CCS runners have six of the top seven NWAACC times in the men’s 800 – but coach Larry Beatty concedes that the name at the top of the list, freshman Erik Walter of Odessa, is a bit of a surprise. Walter, a 1:58.03 half-miler in high school, won the Whitworth Open last weekend in 1:54.96.
“He could be really good,” Beatty said. “He’s one of those kids who didn’t have training partners in high school and now he’s got a bunch of guys at his level.”
The Sasquatch’s previous leader, sophomore John Gavin, ran the steeplechase last weekend “just for fun,” Beatty said. “I kind of wish he’d been in that (800) race now.”
The Sasquatch saw another school record fall last Saturday when freshman Afton Reynolds of Ephrata cleared 11-3/4 in the pole vault, topping Amy Mortensen’s 5-year-old record of 11-0. … Other than the NWC meet, area athletes will be split between the Cougar Invitational in Pullman on Saturday and the Oregon Invitational in Eugene. … EWU’s Jamie Griffith ran the school’s fastest 400 in 11 years, a 57.11 at the McDonald’s Open in Moscow. … Trackwire’s Top 25 ranks the WSU women 13th this week, the only area team ranked.